With county commissioners’ reluctance to support use of money from Bay Park trust fund, Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation agrees to cover $44 million in fees for architects designing new facility

County Commissioner Smith objects to continuing steps toward construction of new performing arts hall until committee studying future of Van Wezel issues its report in 2025 

This graphic, presented to the City Commission in March 2022, provides details about the planning for the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC). Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On May 6, one day before Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith discussed the issue with his board colleagues, the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation announced that it would pay the full expense for the creation of the design concept and related work for a new performing arts center proposed for The Bay Park on the city of Sarasota waterfront.

The total is approximately $44 million, Sarasota city staff has said. The work is necessary to determine the full cost of a new performing arts hall, Jennifer Jorgensen, governmental relations manager for the city, has pointed out.

The funds will be counted toward the Foundation’s 50/50 split with the Sarasota City Commission to pay for the new arts venue, the release noted.

The Foundation’s action followed an April 24 meeting of the Bay Park Improvement Board (BPIB), during which Smith and county Commissioner Ron Cutsinger declined to approve a City of Sarasota request that the board agree that $44 million was a valid expense to come out of a trust fund for The Bay Park, to which both the city and county are contributing.

After Smith reported on the BPIB action during the May 7 County Commission meeting, his fellow commissioners offered commendations to him and Cutsinger for their “No” votes.

Documentation that City Manager Marlon Brown provided the BPIB members showed that the actual cost of the design concept would be about $8.8 million, Smith noted in his May 7 report to the other county commissioners. Yet, he said, when he asked why Brown would not accept a vote that day on just the $8.8 million, Brown responded that he did not want to have to return multiple times to the BPIB to seek its OK for the extra money for other facets of the work.

Jennifer Jorgensen addresses the Bay Park Improvement Board members on March 24. News Leader image from a video of the meeting

Jorgensen also pointed out that any requests for money from the park trust fund must go to the City and County commissions by May 1 in a given year, after the BPIB approves them, or the money cannot come out of the trust fund.

Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert, city Commissioner Debbie Trice and the fifth BPIB member, Jon Thaxton, senior vice president for community leadership at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, voted in favor of the funding request for the architectural work. However, Thaxton agreed to Alpert’s motion to do so only after Brown provided the board members a more detailed breakdown of how the money would be spent.

In November 2020, the City and County commissions approved an interlocal agreement to establish a tax-increment financing district (TIF) to generate revenue for Bay Park amenities. That document also called for the creation of the five-person Bay Park Improvement Board. Two county commissioners and two city commissioners are appointed by their boards to serve on the BPIB, with a member of the community holding the fifth seat.

The TIF district that generates the revenue for Bay Park amenities includes not just the 53 acres of the park itself but also surrounding property. The base year for the district was set as 2019. Every year subsequent to that year, if the value of the property in the district rises, then the lower of the city and county millage rates for that year is applied to that value to determine how much revenue will be set aside in the trust fund established for the park.

Although the term for the TIF district is 30 years, the County Commission included wording in its interlocal agreement with the city the right to terminate the district sooner, if the revenue needed for the park amenities was raised before the end of the term. As Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Officer Steve Botelho told the County Commission during their regular meeting on April 23, the revenue thus far has well exceeded county expectations.

This chart shows the original and current projections for the county’s total funding through The Bay Park TIF. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Smith did point out to his fellow commissioners on May 7 that the interlocal agreement allows the County Commission to approve or deny any funding request for money out of the tax-increment financing (TIF) revenue. “I did read that to [the other BPIB members],” he said, “when I told them I wasn’t going to agree with them.”

He added that he had suggested to the city representatives during the April 24 BPIB meeting that if the City Commission and the Foundation wanted to cover the $44-million request, with the city’s funds coming out of its share of the TIF revenue, they were welcome to do so.

Smith added in his May 7 remarks that he had learned that approximately $22 million of the $44 million would be split evenly between the architect that the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation hired last year to design the new facility — Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) — and the “architect of record,” the local firm that would be participating in the process, Sweet Sparkman Architects. Each would be paid $11,000,100, Smith said, though he noted that he was not sure why the extra $100 was part of each firm’s fee.

(An April 29 Foundation news release about the selection of Sweet Sparkman quoted Renzo Piano Building Workshop: “We selected Sweet Sparkman not only for their capability and local knowledge of the construction industry, but for their spirit, and the team they put forth. We see them as our partners in this adventure, and we strongly believe their qualities, values, and experience will be key to the project’s success.”)

Smith also said on May 7 that he believes the County Commission should not support any funding for a new performing arts facility until the fate of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the city’s bayfront has been determined.

In August 2023, the City Commission appointed a “Purple Ribbon Committee,” whose members have the necessary expertise to make a recommendation about the Van Wezel’s future. The committee is to provide a report to the city no later than August 2025.

In 2021, Smith told his commission colleagues this week, a Sarasota engineering firm, Karins, undertook an analysis of the Van Wezel, at the behest of City Manager Brown, to determine whether the structure could be floodproofed and renovated. Karins estimated that the building could be floodproofed for $1.9 million, Smith said. Given inflation and other factors, Smith estimated that that expense probably would be approximately $4 million this year.

If perhaps it took another $26 million to bring the Van Wezel up to current Building Code standards, Smith continued, that would put the total expense at $30 million. He compared that to the estimated range of $250 million to $300 million or more for a new performing arts hall.

“To me,” he told his colleagues, referring to the city TIF funding request presented to the BPIB, “the whole thing was skewed as far as the schedule goes.” He added that he believed the Purple Ribbon Committee’s final report should be considered before any decision is made on constructing a new facility.

“My recommendation to [the County Commission] is that we do not agree to commit to … the $44 million at this time,” Smith said.

This graphic shows an aerial of The Bay Park site prior to start of the transformation and the plans for the complete facility, including a spot for a new performing arts hall. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Before any of the other commissioners could respond, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that the interlocal agreement between the city and the county for The Bay Park calls for any proposals for revenue to be used out of The Bay Park trust fund to be provided to each commission by May 1 of a given year. Because no request for funding was given to him prior to that deadline, Lewis continued, “The [performing arts hall] project is not going to come before you all this year … unless you direct me [to bring it to you].”

He and his staff, Lewis added, have been working to make certain that all three parties involved with The Bay Park — the City and County commissions and the Bay Park Conservancy, which operates the park and raises private funding for it — comply with that interlocal agreement.

As soon as Lewis finished his remarks, Commissioner Neil Rainford turned to Smith, telling him that his remarks on the $44-million request were “well said.”

Then, with a laugh, Rainford added, “I had no idea that’s how much architects get paid.”
Smith is a long-time architect with an office on Siesta Key.

The funding proposal, Rainford said, “had the hair stand up on the back of my neck.” He continued that he would be “a hard no” on the request.

“Commissioner Rainford, I couldn’t have said it better,” Commissioner Joe Neunder responded. “Forty-four million seems to me like a significant amount of cash,” Neunder added. “I would need a line-item budget.”

Then Chair Michael Moran said, “Not that this fire needs any more fuel …” He explained that he and County Administrator Lewis had been asked to meet with city leaders about the design concept funding for the new performing arts venue. Although the discussion was polite, Moran stressed, he, too, concurred with Smith’s and Cutsinger’s “No” votes on the use of the money from the TIF trust fund.

Smith concluded his May 7 remarks by noting that he was just providing that report, so his colleagues would be aware of the situation. He did not indicate any awareness of the May 6 press release from the Foundation. On May 8, Smith told The Sarasota News Leader that he had heard about the Foundation’s plan to fund the architect’s expenses, but he had not been able to confirm that before the County Commission met this week.

The March request to the Bay Park Improvement Board

During their March 24 meeting, the Bay Park Improvement Board members first heard the request for approval of the $44 million from the Bay Park Trust Fund for the new Sarasota performing arts center, which has been denoted in the past by the acronym SPAC.

At that time, Jorgensen, the city’s governmental relations manager, explained that the Paratus Group consulting firm working with the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation had arrived at the $44-million estimate.

This is an image from the homepage banner of Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Negotiations were underway, she explained, to complete the contract with Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Therefore, in accord with state law, she could not provide any further details about the expense until those negotiations were completed.

The City Commission would have to approve the contract, Jorgensen continued, and the board members could not do that without assurance “that the city has the funds and the Foundation has the funds” to cover the expense agreed to in the contract.

She did note that Renzo Piano would be hiring the subcontractors for the new facility, including structural engineers; the money for those project members would come out of the $44 million, as well.

Typically, she continued — based on what the Paratus Group had reported — the architect of a project is paid about 12% of the total “hard costs,” with the money split 50-50 with the architect of record.

Again, indicating that the information had come from the Paratus Group, she said that $22 million of the $44 million would go to Renzo Piano and the architect of record.

Therefore, Jorgensen said, city staff was asking for the BPIB’s approval for $22 million to come out of the TIF revenue, as the city would have to pay its half of the $44 million and the Foundation would pay the other half.

Discussion initially ensued in regard to whether the SPAC was among The Bay Park amenities identified for funding in the interlocal agreement between the city and the county.

Both Jorgensen and Mayor Alpert maintained that the TIF agreement included a proposed new performing arts venue.

Thaxton of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation agreed with them, noting that he had been involved with the plans for The Bay Park since their origin more than 10 years ago.

However, Thaxton pointed out, he did not believe the expense of the facility’s design was covered by the interlocal agreement.

After it became clear that Thaxton likely would join Smith and Commissioner Cutsinger in voting against the TIF funding request, the BPIB members agreed unanimously to hold another meeting in about a month. Cutsinger, especially, indicated that he would need that extra time to learn more about the various aspects related to the request.

Stressing the need for the money

During the next meeting of the board — on April 24 — City Manager Brown joined Jorgensen in addressing the BPIB members.

Jorgensen clarified that the $44 million figure was derived from an estimate of $185 million for the construction of the SPAC, which was the expense cited in the Request for Proposals that the city issued for an architect for the project.

She also emphasized that the city would not pay its $22-million share upfront. The final total, she said, would be determined after the architects completed five milestones. The first of the latter, Jorgensen noted, would be the completion of the design concept.

After any of those milestones, she added, the contract with Renzo Piano could be terminated. “We’re being very fiscally responsible,” she stressed. “We will be managing the contract.”

This slide provides the milestones for the architect of the new facility. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then, during a discussion of the interlocal agreement between the city and the county, Thaxton of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation finally agreed that — while this situation with the architect’s contract had not been anticipated when the document was signed in 2020 — it appeared to him that the TIF trust fund could provide the $22 million the city was seeking.

Nonetheless, Thaxton insisted that the BPIB members see an itemized budget, referencing language in the agreement.

Commissioner Cutsinger also emphasized his need for more details about the SPAC project. The request, he said, “would never pass the [County] Commission,” without that documentation.

Commissioner Trice countered that, until the design concept was completed, “There’s no way to know what the total cost [of the SPAC] is going to be.” She further objected to what she perceived as Smith and Cutsinger’s indication that the city should take $22 million out of its General Fund to cover its share of the expense.

The General Fund contains all of the property tax revenue a local government receives. It is considered the most flexible “pot of money” to cover unanticipated needs that come up during a fiscal year.

Mayor Alpert concurred with Trice. “We’re not spending $22 million right out of the box,” Alpert added. “This is to get the process started …”

At that point, Brown explained that the $44 million would go toward the architect’s design and engineering fees, the necessary construction documents, the bidding and permitting processes and management of the construction itself.

Among the expenses itemized in the document that Brown finally gave the BPIB members on April 24 is $3,481,600 for “Consultant Travel & Direct Expenses”; $165,000 for a “Wind Tunnel Analysis”; and $91,700 for “Vertical Transportation,” which Commissioner Smith told the News Leader he believes is a reference to a determination about the number of elevators for the new facility.

This is the itemized budget that City Manager Marlon Brown presented to the BPIB on April 24. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to a question from Trice, Jorgensen said that the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation has committed to having what is called the “Implementation Agreement” for the SPAC ready for City Commission review by the end of October. That document is to contain a reliable estimate for the full expense of the project and provide more details about the responsibilities of both the city and the Foundation in regard to the construction and management of the new facility.

Therefore, Jorgensen said, she expects the City Commission will discuss that document during a meeting in November.

The estimate for completion of the design concept is four months, Jorgensen continued, after the City Commission approves the contract with Renzo Piano. Then the schematic design will take another six months, she said, with the development of the construction documents completed in perhaps a year from that point.

The board members ended up taking a break so Brown could provide them with a breakdown of all the expenses adding up to the $44 million.

Afterward, Alpert made the motion to approve the use of $22 million from the TIF trust fund to pay for the architect’s expenses, and Trice seconded it.

Smith said he could not support the motion without seeing the final report from the Purple Ribbon Committee, including its recommendation in regard to a new engineering study of the Van Wezel.

Thaxton did take the opportunity to offer caution that the County Commission would have to approve the TIF revenue’s use for the architect. Given the fact that Commissioner Moran has been a constant “No” vote on any issue related to the TIF district and the funding, Thaxton said, and Smith and Cutsinger both appearing ready to oppose Alpert’s motion, that would be a majority of the county board opposing the use of the TIF revenue for the architect’s payment. (Moran refused to support the TIF agreement from the outset, pointing out that the commissioners had no way of knowing what expenses the county might need to cover in the decades that the agreement would be in effect. He fretted that the county board could find itself unable to pay for needed improvements in the community, based on continued anticipated population growth, with the TIF revenue being diverted from the county’s coffers.)

Thaxton also pointed out that a negative County Commission vote on a project for The Bay Park would be a first.

Cutsinger agreed with him about the likelihood that the County Commission majority would not approve the architect’s funding from the trust fund.

Finally, when Smith — the BPIB chair — called for the vote on Alpert’s motion, it passed 3-2.