Bubil: City manager is no job for wimps


Being city manager of Sarasota is kind of like being the guy in the dunking tank at the county fair.

Someone is always trying to dunk you. In the past three decades, the target has been hit often. “It is not a career-long job now,” said county historian Jeff LaHurd.

But for 38 years, starting in 1950, Sarasota had one city manager: Ken Thompson. Nobody since John Ringling or Owen Burns in the 1920s shaped Sarasota more than this tough and visionary administrator, said LaHurd.

The historian will discuss Thompson’s career at 7 p.m. Tuesday as part of the Historical Society of Sarasota County’s “Conversations at the Crocker” series. The event will be held at the historic Crocker Church in Pioneer Park on 12th Street, just east of U.S. 41 in Sarasota. Admission is $10, and free for HSSC members. (www.hsosc.com.)

I’ll moderate the discussion, not that LaHurd needs any help.

“If Sarasota was the ship,” said LaHurd in a recent conversation, “Thompson was the captain and the city commissioners were the crew. For good reason. In those early days, those guys had other jobs; they didn’t get paid for being commissioners. Their payment was their service to the community, so they hired someone who knew what was going on and followed his lead.”

Thompson was a civil engineer and licensed surveyor, and he loved to take community leaders aloft and show them his vision for a developing Sarasota from the seat of a small plane.

“He wanted Sarasota to be an upscale, snowbird retreat,” said LaHurd. “Thompson said, ‘Keep your industry, but send us your industrialists.’ That was in keeping with the development Ringling and Burns did in the 1920s. Thompson had this view of Sarasota as being a beautiful place for snowbirds. After World War II, he had what he felt was a jewel, and he just wanted to polish it.”

Huge things happened under Thompson’s watch: A new Ringling bridge, rerouting U.S. 41 along the bayfront, construction of Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and a new City Hall, senior housing developments that included Plymouth Harbor, a condo boom and Bird Key.

He also desegregated the public library with a phone call to the librarian.

Despite Thompson’s obvious success, there were occasional attempts to oust him from his seat of power. Some people felt he had too much power.

One such attempt gets a lot of attention in LaHurd’s new book on Thompson, and it will be discussed Tuesday. Suffice it to say, the coup failed.

Was Thompson a benevolent dictator for Sarasota?

“I would say so,” said LaHurd.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: April 5, 2014
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