Friday, February 19, 2010

....A deadline for a circus dream....

....City plans to tear down dilapidated Venice arena....

By Kim Hackett

Published: Friday, February 19, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 10:40 p.m.

Fifth-generation trapeze artist Tito Gaona has dreamed for years of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus museum on the circus grounds where he grew up and Gunther Gebel-Williams trained lions and tigers during nearly three decades of winters in the city.
Now Gaona's dream has a deadline.

City officials say the old circus buildings must come down in the next few months to make way for future development.

The former circus arena, north of the Circus Bridge, is on valuable city airport land near the Intracoastal Waterway. Since the circus left in 1991, Venice officials have balked at spending money to preserve it.

"It is a landmark," said Gaona, who revived his Venice Circus Arts Foundation last month to save at least Gebel-Williams' animal training building. "It is the first arena the circus performed in after the big top."

Assistant City Manager Nancy Woodley has told the City Council that the buildings are filled with asbestos and have deteriorated beyond saving.

The council plans to spend $250,000 to demolish the circus complex and create a plan to develop the land.

Mayor Ed Martin said he did not know if it was feasible to save the training building.

"It's not something that has really been discussed," Martin said.

Gaona started a save-the-arena campaign in 2003, creating a nonprofit foundation and collecting 500 signatures, but the momentum slowed when the real estate market heated up and the city planned to develop a marina and hotel on airport land.

The foundation dissolved a year later.

Gaona has since filed papers with the state for a new one.
Volunteers hope to again gather signatures and build support to save the animal training building and turn it into a museum, next to where Gaona has been teaching trapeze since 1998.

Gaona shakes his head thinking of the area memorials to the circus: the Circus Bridge over the Intracoastal, a mural on a wall along the Tamiami Trail and streets named for the circus.

A museum would be an authentic memorial, he said.

"Where would that all be without the circus?" Gaona said.

The circus had its last performance in Venice in 1991, and departed to Tampa after the city and the railroad refused to upgrade the railroad tracks.

Venice rented the arena over the years but it has been vacant since 2000.

Photos of the arena and Gaona's trapeze classes chronicle the complex's decay.

A decade ago, city officials estimated it would cost $450,000 to rehabilitate the 5,100-seat arena. The YMCA and other circuses wanted to lease it.

Now, gouged walls, graffiti and seven-foot weeds greet Gaona every day he drives past the arena through a rickety fence to his outdoor trapeze school. Last year someone started a fire on a couch inside the arena.

Gebel-Williams' old training building, built to resemble a big top, looked freshly painted white with red wood edging in a 2004 photo.

The building paint has faded and the red wood dangles off the sides of the building. Inside, the sun shines through gaping rusted holes in the roof. A ripped, faded director's chair with the name "Tito" leans against one wall and a cluster of rusting spotlights against another.

Even local historians have said the time may have passed for saving the buildings.

"You have to pick your battles," said Betty Intagliata, former president of the Venice Area Historical Society and chairwoman of the Sarasota County Historical Commission.

Gaona said he cannot let the building come down without one last effort to save it. "They want us to forget," Gaona said. "But we won't forget."

This story appeared in print on page BN1
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