Two city commissioners voice concerns about paying for Players property, but city manager indicates feasibility of lower sale price
In two separate, unanimous votes, the Sarasota City Commission has taken steps to facilitate the planning process for 42 acres of city-owned bayfront property.
During its June 19 regular meeting, the board agreed to allow City Manager Tom Barwin to negotiate with The Players Theatre regarding the potential purchase of the approximately 1.77-acre site the organization is attempting to sell at 838 N. Tamiami Trail so it can relocate to a new facility in Lakewood Ranch. The commission also agreed to allow tenants with leases on city-owned bayfront property to maintain those after Jan. 1, 2019, but it will not permit any other third-party uses of the land beyond that date.
Both Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody questioned how the city would pay for The Players Theatre land if the organization agrees to sell it to the city. Barwin indicated that the city most likely would need to borrow money, though it probably could contribute some cash to the deal. Moreover, while the property is listed at $9.5 million, Barwin said, that did not mean that would be the price the city would pay.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity I think that we should take advantage of,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert told her colleagues. “If we don’t buy it, there will be an 18-story condo there.”
When Freeland Eddie questioned whether the commission should allow Barwin to do more than investigate the potential acquisition of the land, Alpert replied, “I think we have to absolutely go in with an option to purchase.”
In response to a question from Brody, City Attorney Robert Fournier suggested that the board “give the city manager broad authority” in the negotiations, “as long as you retain final approval authority.”
That was the language for the motion Alpert ended up making, with Commissioner Willie Shaw seconding it.
On April 17, Barwin — who represents the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO), which is working on a master plan for the city’s 42 acres on the waterfront — explained that the group would like for the city to refrain from accepting any new proposals for use of the land. That would give the SBPO much more flexibility, he pointed out, in creating a vision for public space and new arts and cultural venues on the site.
However, on May 1, Daniel Jittu, president of the Historic Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club, voiced fears about how the action could affect his group, which has conducted one international event and is planning a second one for November on the bayfront land it leases.
Subsequently, the commission asked Fournier to undertake a revision of the proposed resolution to incorporate concerns of the Lawn Bowling Club and other tenants.
The resolution the board approved on June 19 says the commission will not consider any requests “from individuals or entities who are not presently occupying space” on those 42 acres, and it will not “establish new uses on the subject property that would extend beyond January 1, 2019 …”
The only person to address the board on the issue during its April 19 meeting was Chris Johnson, the marketing director of Tevatan LLC, which soon will be known as the Sarasota-Bradenton Ferry. He was representing Capt. Sherman Baldwin, he said, as Baldwin could not be present.
Reminding the commissioners that in March they approved a ferry route between Sarasota’s bayfront and Bradenton Beach — starting this fall — Johnson pointed out the need “for us to have an uninterrupted embarking point.” The ferry will be capable of transporting 125 people, most of whom Baldwin has predicted will be workers at Sarasota-area businesses looking for an easier commute. Moreover, Johnson said, the company will be employing up to 125 people.
“Our employers and our customers will rely on this consistency” regarding a docking facility, he added.
The revised resolution, Barwin pointed out, gives the City Commission “full discretion on that issue.”
When Alpert sought clarification regarding the intent of the resolution, Fournier told her, “All this does is exempt [tenants] from … termination of use on Jan. 1, 2019. … It’s not a promise that after that [date], they can stay in perpetuity.”
Then Alpert made the motion to approve the amended resolution, with Commissioner Shaw seconding it.
The Players property
In making his case for the acquisition of The Players Theatre site, Barwin talked of the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 vision “to emphasize people and nature, not just a parking lot,” on the 42 acres the city owns on the waterfront — including the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
The planning effort seeks, he said, “to minimize the asphalt … and dramatically improve this cultural oasis.”
Because of the proximity of The Players’ property to the bayfront area land, he continued, the city’s ownership of 838 N. Tamiami Trail would open up “many new options” for the planning process.
When the SBPO members discussed the idea at their most recent board meeting, he continued, “every single individual was highly charged” about the prospect of including the site in the undertaking.
When Shaw asked about the prospect of a walkover from The Players’ land to the bayfront, Barwin responded that he felt “we could have a gentle, sloping, curved walkover/bikeover … The public has told us they don’t want a lot of buildings jammed together on the bayfront,” he added, “and [U.S.] 41 is so intimidating. … The SBPO board is really focused on the connectivity [idea].”
In response to questions from Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch about the history of The Players’ property, Michelle Bianchi, the CEO of The Players, replied that the organization does “own the property outright now.” Some private contributions facilitated that, she added.
The Players’ website explains its capital campaign to raise $30 million to enable it to relocate to a larger campus. The current structure in Sarasota, the site says, was built in the early 1970s and needs extensive renovations. Additionally, the website notes, parking is constrained on the property.
Freeland Eddie asked Barwin whether he or anyone else on staff had undertaken any research about the value of the land, adding that she has heard another economic downturn might take place in 2019 or 2020.
Although the listing price is $9.5 million, Barwin replied, if the board gave staff the go-ahead to negotiate purchase terms, that process would entail an appraisal.
During public comments on the issue, Martin Hyde — who lost a bid to win a seat on the commission this spring — pointed out that the property was valued at $5,389,400 in 2016 by the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office. That was an increase from $3,858,500 in 2015, he noted. In 2007 —before the Great Recession began, Hyde continued — the property had a value of $7,711,200. Even the latter figure, he noted, is over 40% lower than the asking price.
Hyde criticized Barwin for making “Ian Black’s real estate listings” Barwin’s “wish list.”
Conversely, Richard Hays, a facilitator for the SBPO, told the commissioners that the property “opens up many options,” and urged them to allow Barwin to proceed with the negotiations.
“Sometimes,” Hays said, “opportunities pop out of the woodwork.”