Byline: Laura Higgins ; STAFF WRITER
Nearly a decade ago, the wrecking ball was looming for the historic John Ringling Towers. The latest in a line of would-be saviors had failed to transform the dilapidated hotel, and the Sarasota City Commission was growing impatient.
Worried that an eyesore would forever be a gateway to downtown, the commissioners threatened to enforce building code violations and trigger demolition of the towers.
The hotel received a one-year reprieve in February 1991, when the owner asked for some time to develop a plan to restore the 1926 Spanish-style hotel once owned by circus magnate John Ringling.
Some skeptics saw such talk as a tired, familiar refrain. Fredd Atkins, then a city commissioner, called the towers a "monument to futility."
It was in this atmosphere that the John Ringling Centre Foundation was formed. The group arose from a series of meetings held by former state Sen. Bob Johnson to gauge public opinion on the future of the building. He invited artists, philanthropists, business people and politicians.
Then-owner Huntington National Bank of Ohio was willing to donate the towers to a nonprofit group that would restore the property - and the John Ringling Centre Foundation stepped forward to accept.
Over the next five years, the group embarked on a massive fund-raising effort and launched ambitious plans to restore the hotel into a cultural center for artists and nonprofit organizations. There would be space for retail shops, restaurants and 8,000 square feet of historic rooms.
None of that happened.
City building officials declared the building a public nuisance in March. Demolition crews are working to reduce the towers to rubble.
Why did the effort fail?
Don Smally, president of the foundation, places most of the blame squarely on C. Robert Buford, the Kansas developer who acquired the property after a lengthy lawsuit and decided to tear it down.
"Let me tell you, we did everything we had to do," Smally said. "Buford messed up everything."
But thousands of pages of documents, sworn depositions and dozens of interviews with those involved in the project suggest there was plenty of blame to go around.
They tell a convoluted tale of lost opportunities, missed deadlines, clashing personalities and a tangle of lawsuits. What ultimately sealed the building's doom, many agree, was the lack of funding needed to make the restoration a reality.
The foundation had an 18-month window to restore the exterior and first two floors. If it had fulfilled that requirement, the building likely would have been spared any threat of demolition.
The foundation did not come close to meeting that deadline. While the cost of that work was estimated at $3.1 million, the foundation spent only $425,000.
"The simplistic answer is there just weren't enough people willing to contribute to it," City Commissioner Gene Pillot said. "The leadership, the heart, the intentions were there, but the funds weren't."
"Everything was too late on this project," said Bill Merrill, a lawyer and member of the foundation's executive board. "Too little, too late. For the last 20 years, it was always too little, too late.
"We can all look back and say, here's a mistake the bank made, here's a mistake the foundation made, here's a mistake the city made," he said. "Hindsight is 20/20. . . . You can't look back and second-guess …