Ahearn-Koch fails to win support of fellow city commissioners in request to delve more deeply into funding scenarios for proposed new Sarasota Performing Arts Center

City manager says he lacks sufficient information for such a presentation

This is a slide that representatives of the Van Wezel Foundation showed the city commissioners on March 21, as they sought approval of the partnership agreement for the proposed new Sarasota Performing Arts Center. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Just how will taxpayers in the city of Sarasota — and future attendees of productions at city performing arts venues — pay for the new facility that the Sarasota City Commission approved on April 4?

Variations on that question — raised by a number of city residents — prompted Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch to make a request of her colleagues on April 18, as they wrapped up nearly seven hours of city business during their latest regular meeting.

“We did act in good faith [in the majority’s approval of] that partnership agreement [with the Van Wezel Foundation on April 4],” she said. It calls for the city to pay 50% of the cost of the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC), with the Van Wezel Foundation picking up the rest of the tab.

When she asked Mayor Erik Arroyo whether he had signed the agreement yet, he shook his head “No.”

(In fact, just before the 3-2 vote on April 4, Arroyo pointed out, “A letter of intent would have accomplished almost exactly what this would,” referring to the agreement. An attorney, he added, “I wouldn’t tell a client of mine to sign something like this, without knowing how much they’re committing. I wouldn’t sign it myself.” He told Van Wezel Foundation representatives that he understood that they wanted the agreement in place so they could get donors to commit to helping pay for the project. However, Arroyo said, “We’re binding the rest of this city to this.”)

Foundation representatives have estimated the total expense will be in the range of $300 million to $350 million. Yet, even Commissioner Hagen Brody — one of the three city board members who approved the agreement — suggested that those figures could be low, based on the cost of similar facilities in other parts of the United States, including one in Miami.

This March 21 graphic presented to the City Commission shows how the new SPAC would be integrated into The Bay Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Moreover, as Ahearn-Koch stressed on April 18, the city’s 50% share does not include all construction of the 1,000 parking spaces the Foundation team says will be needed in proximity to the new venue, or the water and sewer infrastructure that will be required.

Section 12.i. of the agreement says that, in addition to the city’s 50% contribution to the project, “[T]he City shall also fund and provide parking within 0.25 miles (10 minute walking distance) of the PAC. The 1000 parking spaces shall be provided through a combination of surface parking spaces within the 53 acres of the Bay Park, under the PAC, and additional offsite parking locations, which may include a parking garage if deemed necessary. The parking spaces shall be made available upon the PAC being issued a certificate of occupancy.”

Further, the April 4 agreement calls for the city to waive fees that normally would be associated with the development process, Ahearn-Koch noted.

Section 12.g. of the agreement says, “City shall consider all applications for development approval filed by SPAC to be City-initiated applications not included in the City’s Billable Fee System.”

“I’ve received an awful lot of comments from people asking details,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues on April 18. (See the related article in this issue.)

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch offers remarks on April 18 as Commissioner Hagen Brody listens. News Leader image

Therefore, she continued, she would like to have City Manager Marlon Brown present “a detailed financial plan and funding strategy” to the commissioners before Foundation representatives come back to them in about a year with the promised “implementation agreement” that will lay out figures developed by the Foundation’s project team.

Mayor Arroyo responded that he believes the implementation agreement will have all the details she is seeking.

However, City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out, “It won’t have how the city will pay for anything. … That wasn’t a requirement …”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Liz Alpert responded, the implementation agreement will have all of the information necessary to enable city staff to figure out how the city will cover its share of the expenses.

When Ahearn-Koch said she felt the city manager’s presentation would be useful, Alpert replied, “They don’t know what the implementation agreement’s going to say. So when the implementation agreement comes before us, how the city’s going to pay for it can come at the same time.”

Ahearn-Koch persisted, reminding her colleagues that the April 4 agreement said the SPAC would comprise approximately 200,000 square feet. Using the Foundation’s rough estimate from an architectural firm that the expense will be $1,800 per square foot, she continued, city staff could work on its own figures and then take into account the money that will come from the tax-increment financing (TIF) district that encompasses not only the 53 acres planned for The Bay Park but also new developments in the surrounding area. (As the value of the property in the district rises, the city — and Sarasota County staff — will apply the local governments’ millage rate each year to the new value. Then they will set aside in a trust fund the revenue that each would have received from the property owners.)

This graphic, presented to the City Commission in March, provides details about the planning for the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC). Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Ahearn-Koch also pointed out that City Manager Brown has proposed using a revenue bond to help finance the new center. Brown said a surcharge could be added to each ticket for performances at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the new facility, Ahearn-Koch added. “Is it going to be a dollar, or is it going to be $50?” she asked. “If it’s the $50, that’s very different than if it’s the dollar.”

Brown then told her, “I promised that I would bring you back … how we intend to fund this. … I’m not ready. I’m not going to have any information.”

He voiced doubt that he would be ready before the city receives the implementation agreement.

“He has to have that information in order to then figure out what the funding is,” Alpert stressed to Ahearn-Koch.

“I disagree,” Ahearn-Koch said.

Alpert again emphasized that Brown has no details from the Foundation.

Assertions, interruptions and accusations

Then Brown told the board members that if they would like to schedule a presentation on an upcoming agenda, one of the three commissioners who voted for the agreement would have to make that request. (Along with Brody, Alpert and Vice Mayor Kyle Battie made up the April 4 majority.)

Mayor Erik Arroyo addresses a colleague on April 18. News Leader image

“It’s going to come back to us,” Mayor Arroyo reiterated the points others had made.

“I’m not having the ability to make myself clear,” Ahearn-Koch responded.

Brody told her he understood what she was asking, adding, “There’s no price tag.”

As she tried again to state what she was seeking, Brody interrupted her: “I don’t know what you’re asking for. … I don’t want to rush this.” When the city has the financial details, he said, the commissioners can talk about how they will cover the city’s share.

“We’ve already agreed to pay for half of this, no matter what. We’ve agreed to it,” Ahearn-Koch emphasized.

“We have to be mindful of timing and what information is available,” Arroyo told her.

“I would really appreciate to be able to speak a sentence without being interrupted,” she replied.

“I think it’s important we go into this with our eyes wide open, exactly what we are putting these [city] residents on the hook for over the next 30 or 40 or 50 years,” Ahearn-Koch said. “We do have the ability to do that. We do it all the time,” she added, referring to cost estimates of projects.

“I’m fine with the trajectory we’re on,” Brody said. “I think we need way more specific information before we get into these numbers, ’cause anything else is fully hypothetical and a waste of everybody’s time.”

Then Brody added, “I’ve seen the opposition.” The opponents of the SPAC, he continued, remind him of the persons who fought the construction of the Ringling Causeway Bridge and the Selby Gardens Master Plan and even the Van Wezel. He said he has told Cheryl Mendelson, CEO of the Van Wezel Foundation, the same thing he told Jennifer Rominiecki, president and CEO of Selby Gardens, when leaders of the Gardens were trying to win commission approval of the Master Plan: “Keep one foot in front of the other.”

This is a view of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami-Date County. Commissioner Brody talked on April 4 about the fact that its $450-million cost in 2006 would be more than $600 million today, given the effect of inflation. Such venues simply are expensive, he has said. Photo taken by Andrew Berry in 2019, via Google Maps

He accused Ahearn-Koch of attempting to “gin up opposition” by asking for a presentation before the Foundation provides city staff with its figures.

“I’m not ginning up opposition,” Ahearn-Koch replied. “I want to know what we’re committing ourselves to and how we’re going to pay for it.”

She further stressed that she always has been a supporter of plans for a new performing arts hall.

“We all want to be responsible with taxpayers dollars,” Brody responded. “Let’s wait and let the process take its course, and all [the financial details] will be revealed in time.”

At that point, Mayor Arroyo ended the discussion. It was about 5:45 p.m.; the meeting began at 9 a.m., with an hour’s break for lunch and a few other breaks lasting about 10 minutes each.