After approving resolution of support for keeping Sarasota Orchestra within Sarasota, City Commission agrees to extend workshop invitation to organization

Commissioner Shaw proposes county park parcel in North Sarasota as potential new concert hall venue

The county property on North Tamiami Trail, just west of North Water Tower Park, is outlined in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

Yes, the Sarasota city commissioners agree unanimously, they would like to keep the Sarasota Orchestra in the city of Sarasota. And, yes, they all also agree that they would like to discuss options for a new location with Orchestra leaders during a workshop.

What they did not unanimously agree on this week was the potential for a county-owned parcel originally designated for parkland to be on the list of options for a new home for the Orchestra.

Although Commissioner Willie Shaw mentioned that county property, which is just west of the city’s North Water Tower Park, Commissioner Liz Alpert pointed out, “I don’t think we can offer county property, so I don’t think it makes sense [to include that among possible sites for a new Sarasota Orchestra venue].”

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch replied that she did not see Shaw’s motion to include that parcel on the workshop agenda — if the Orchestra leaders agree to the workshop proposal — as an offer of the land. The proposal would be an item only for discussion, Ahearn-Koch stressed.

Nonetheless, Alpert and Commissioner Hagen Brody opposed Shaw’s motion, which Ahearn-Koch had seconded.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said she supported the motion because the county land “abuts city-owned property.”

The issue likely could be moot, as the County Commission voted unanimously in early November 2019 to authorize County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to negotiate with nonprofit organizations interested in buying the approximately 6.23-acre parcel for an affordable housing project. The land stands at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail.

The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office put the value of the parcel at $1,334,800 in 2019. The county purchased it in January 2015 for $1.2 million, the office’s records show.

The resolution the County Commission approved on Nov. 6, 2019 called for proposals to be submitted by 5 p.m. on Dec. 31. The county board will have its first meeting of 2020 on Jan. 14.

The City Commission resolution

The Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center in Sarasota is one venue Sarasota Orchestra owns. Image from the Sarasota Orchestra website

During their first regular meeting of the New Year — conducted on Jan. 6 — the city commissioners first addressed a resolution Alpert had requested in late October 2019. Among its clauses, that document states, “The City Commission considers the relocation of the Sarasota Orchestra within the City to be a high priority and reiterates its desire to work closely with the Orchestra to bring its new home into reality to serve residents, visitors, the business community, musicians and all who value quality live performances and a culture of creativity which will endure over the next 100 years, in the heart of the cultural corridor which has nurtured and grown the Orchestra to world class status during its initial 65 years in the City of Sarasota.”

In 2018, Orchestra leaders laid out their need for a permanent new venue, with superior acoustics, that would free them from worries about sea level rise. (Their primary location — the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center — is located at 709 N. Tamiami Trail, close to Sarasota Bay.) However, a groundswell of opposition to a proposed new performance hall in part of the city’s downtown Payne Park prompted dozens of speakers to address the commission during its May 20, 2019 meeting. Afterward, the board members voted 4-1 to deny the Orchestra’s request. Only Alpert supported the proposal, which would have necessitated relocating the tennis courts to another area of Payne Park.

Since then, Alpert — in her role as mayor — argued a number of times during City Commission meetings that she and her colleagues should do all in their power to encourage the Orchestra to find a new city home. She finally won her colleagues’ support on Oct. 21, 2019 for directing City Attorney Robert Fournier to draft the resolution that was adopted this week.

“I think it’s really incumbent on us a commission to really take seriously whether we want to be the commission that was responsible for losing the Orchestra,” she said on Jan. 6. Her desire, she continued, is “that we really aggressively look for [a site] that will work for the Orchestra in the city.”

This rendering shows how the new Sarasota Orchestra venue proposed last year in Payne Park could look, close to U.S. 301. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Alpert then proposed the workshop to discuss all potential options.

Mayor Ahearn-Koch took that opportunity to note that the Orchestra had sent city leaders a letter that day, offering an update on its plans for a new music center.

“As we work through the due diligence process,” the letter said, “we are more enthusiastic than ever about the importance of arts and culture to the Sarasota/Manatee community.”

In its second paragraph, the letter emphasizes again the decision of the Sarasota Orchestra board to “to search for a site off the Bayfront.” Referencing the prospect that it could take more than a decade for the nonprofit Bay Park Conservancy to raise the necessary funds for new arts and cultural amenities on 53 city-owned bayfront parcels, the letter also pointed out, “Our consultants and philanthropists supporting our new music center vision remain concerned about high costs associated with sea level rise and tidal surge risks on the Bay.”

After mentioning the opening of the letter, Ahearn-Koch on Jan. 6 stressed of the Orchestra, “They are a valuable part of our community. They are a rich asset to the city. I think we can all acknowledge that they are a regional asset.”

This is the opening of the Jan. 6 letter to city leaders from the Sarasota Orchestra leaders. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The letter added that, after “working diligently to investigate and test a wide range of potential sites that meet our criteria [it] has become apparent to us that none of the available sites in the City meet our [criteria].” Those that do, the letter continued, “lie within the County.”

Nonetheless, in noting the inclusion of the proposed resolution on the Jan. 6 City Commission agenda, the letter said, “We appreciate all expressions of support, will remain engaged with Sarasota City staff and will keep an open mind to new options that might arise.”

Even before Ahearn-Koch brought up the letter, Commissioner Shaw said, “I would like to extend an invitation [to the Orchestra to come] to District 1,” referring to the county property west of North Water Tower Park. He pointed out that the land is within close proximity of the Ringling Museum of Art and that it is not that far from the planned Bay Park on the city’s waterfront.

“Has that option been entertained by the Sarasota Orchestra?” he asked. “I don’t know.”

Going forward, not backward

Ahearn-Koch made it clear during the discussion that she did not want to revisit the potential site in Payne Park. “What I want to do is move forward with the Orchestra and not backward.”

City Attorney Fournier responded that he specifically did not refer to any locations in drawing up the proposed resolution.

Because of that, Ahearn-Koch said, she could support the document.

These are clauses in the resolution the City Commission approved on Jan. 6. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

If the resolution won approval, City Manager Tom Barwin said, then city staff would work with the Orchestra leaders on the county’s North Sarasota property and on the possibility of a workshop with the City Commission.

Shaw first objected to the latter comment, saying, “We have not come to a consensus on [that].”

He concurred with Ahearn-Koch, he said: Payne Park has to be off the table.

Her goal with the workshop, Commissioner Alpert stressed, “is to be able to sit down and talk about what are the viable locations in the city … We can work together [with the Orchestra leaders], which we can’t do in just a regular public meeting.”

Ahearn-Koch suggested the resolution and the workshop proposal be put into separate motions.

A June 2018 graphic offers details about some of the programs of Sarasota Orchestra. Image courtesy Sarasota Orchestra

Alpert made the motion for approval of the resolution, which Shaw seconded. After it passed 5-0, then Alpert also made the motion to direct staff to contact Orchestra leaders to determine if they would be agreeable to a workshop to discuss options for a new venue.

With no quick second, Ahearn-Koch called the motion dead. At that point, Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie said she would second it. If the Orchestra leaders agree to the workshop, Freeland Eddie said, then city staff could work on an agenda for the discussion.

Commissioner Brody questioned the need for that motion. “They alwayshave an open door to request a workshop.”

After that motion passed 5-0, then Shaw made the motion to call for consideration of the county’s park property just east of U.S. 41 in North Sarasota to be on the agenda, if a workshop is scheduled.

Ahearn-Koch seconded it. That resulted in the 3-2 vote, with Alpert and Brody in the minority.