It takes nearly three hours, but City Commission unanimously agrees to proposed lease with Sarasota Players for new building on U.S. 301 parcel

Community theater group will use Payne Park Auditorium, as well

This is a rendering showing the proposed building next to Payne Park Auditorium. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Arlington Park resident Rob Grant was the very first speaker during the July 15 Sarasota City Commission discussion about a proposal for The Sarasota Players community theater organization to use greenspace for a new structure in Payne Park, next to the city’s auditorium. He also was the first to suggest an alternative that ended up prevailing that day.

However, it was not until about two-thirds of the way through the nearly three-hour-long agenda item before a commissioner — Debbie Trice — put the focus on that alternative.

Both she and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch had stated that they would not vote for the new building in Payne Park, even though the approximately $12-million, 17,300-square-foot, two-story structure and associated parking would take up only about one-tenth of 1% of the land in the park, as William Porter, chair of The Players board of directors, had explained.

Certified land planner and former Venice City Manager Martin Black of The Players project group noted that even less of the park property would be needed if the team could work out other options to comply with city parking requirements. One of those would be use of the nearby Sarasota County parking garage on School Avenue, which routinely is vacant — Black and city staff members said — when The Players would be holding performances at night and on weekends.

“Could [that new structure] perhaps be on city-owned land on [U.S.] 301 or somewhere else?” Trice asked The Players group.

“We asked staff,” Black replied, “and we were told that [the U.S. 301 site] wasn’t available.”

City Manager Marlon Brown indicated that the U.S. 301 parcel had not been offered to The Players as an option because of the land’s value. Brown noted that the city paid between $3 million and $4 million for it.

Wayne Applebee, manager of economic development for the city, reminded the commissioners that work on an economic development strategic plan is underway; that includes a focus on property that the city owns.

The U.S. 301 parcel, Applebee stressed, is one that will be analyzed “for highest and best use.” He had no details yet about that evaluation, Applebee added.

“That’s why we did not offer [it] up [to The Players],” Brown pointed out. “That’s a very, very valuable piece.”

Nonetheless, Brown said, if it were the will of the commission, that parcel could be an option for The Players.

Even if it were possible to construct the new facility for The Players, Black noted, “We will still need the [Payne Park] auditorium … But it’s really up to the city,” in terms of whether The Players could use that alternative site.”

This graphic, which a city resident presented to the commissioners on July 15, shows where the planned new building was proposed in Payne Park and where it could stand on U.S. 301, with both sites shaded in yellow. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The reason The Players had proposed the new facility, board Chair Porter explained, were the limitations of the Payne Park Auditorium that were discovered in an evaluation of that structure. The Players would be unable to modify the building, he said, to accommodate the necessary number of seats, which would be up to 300.

However, William Skaggs, CEO of The Players, pointed out that the auditorium would be used to provide a couple of small performance venues, restrooms, a small meeting room and “a very small lobby area.”

Porter also explained that up to 15 smaller nonprofit performing arts groups would be utilizing the facilities, as well.

It took nearly three hours of the public’s, the commissioners’, The Players representatives’ and city staff members’ comments for the board members to unanimously direct city staff to work with The Players on the U.S. 301 option and bring back a draft lease to them.

The Players agreed to pay the city $100 per year for 30 years, plus $1 per ticket. At the request of Trice, the winning motion called for an “inflation factor” to be applied to the ticket revenue. When she asked how many tickets The Players anticipated they would sell in an average year, Skaggs told her that the range “in our extremely tiny space” in the former Southgate Mall on Siesta Drive “is in the range of 10 [thousand] to 12 thousand [a year].”

The original, proposed term sheet before the board that day specified an initial 10-year lease, with the option for two 10-year renewals. City Manager Brown reminded the board members that a shorter city lease policy had been implemented because of criticism city leaders had received through the years about the city’s lease with Marina Jack on the city’s waterfront.

Members of the public long have maintained that Marina Jack had benefited far more than the city in its leasing of that property for decades.

Once The Players has the necessary city permits in hand, and construction can begin, Black said he anticipated the new building would be completed within 12 to 18 months.

Although Trice questioned whether he was being too optimistic, he told her, “I do land development work. I supervised the construction of the [Atlanta] Braves [Spring Training] stadium [in CoolToday Park near North Port].” This building, he added, should be “relatively easy to construct.”

A year-long process

(From left) Wayne Applebee, manager of economic development for the city; Michael Ayres, executive director of The Players; Players CEO William Skaggs; planner Martin Black; and William Porter, chair of The Players board, appear before the City Commission on July 15. News Leader image

The Players representatives came before the City Commission on July 15 to seek approval of a “term sheet” that had been modified since it was proposed during the regular commission meeting held on May 15, 2023. The initial document called for The Players to use 1.6 acres of Payne Park, including the auditorium; the revised version put the total at 2.1 acres.

However — akin to the response in 2019 when the Sarasota Orchestra proposed constructing a new venue in Payne Park — city residents decried the potential loss of the greenspace. Only two of the 15 speakers who addressed the commissioners about The Players’ revised proposal on July 15 advocated for the organization to proceed as it had proposed, with the new building in Payne Park.

Among the opponents of the plan, Grant of Arlington Park emphasized that about one-third of the 34.5 acres of Payne Park already has been “built out or used.”

Kelly Brown, president of the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association, told the commissioners, “Do not allow our greenspace to be destroyed when other options are available.”

She further noted that the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA) would fight the construction plans in Payne Park, if the commission allowed them to move forward.

Several speakers pointed to the city’s master plan for parks, which dates to 2019, as an indicator that the city needs more greenspace in parks, not less.

This graphic shows the plans The Players had developed for the new building in Payne Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

It took Commissioner Erik Arroyo five tries, by count of The Sarasota News Leader, to put together the motion that ended up passing, as a result of comments some of his colleagues offered in an effort to ensure its clarity and City Attorney Robert Fournier’s attempt to explain how city policies and regulations affected parts of those comments.

Moreover, Black, the planner with The Players group, pointed out that even with commissioners indicating their willingness to provide The Players a 30-year lease, it would take a supermajority of the board members — four out of five — to approve such a term.

It was clear from the board members’ discussion that day, Black indicated, that the supermajority not exist if The Players were to stick with their proposal for using the Payne Park Auditorium and the new building next to it.

Frustration aired by the city auditor and clerk

This is an image from The Players’ website.

Amid exchanges between commissioners involving their conflicting views about The, Players’ proposal for Payne Park, City Auditor and Clerk Shalya Griggs interrupted the board members three times. On two occasions, she chastised the commissioners for spending so much time on the issue, when they had several other public hearings on their regular meeting agenda, plus a special meeting advertised for 5:30 p.m. that day.

Her third interruption related to the discussion about Arroyo’s phrasing of the motion.

The first time, Griggs said, “Please don’t yell at me. I’m reminding you of your time. … We are only in Unfinished Business, on the first item [under that heading],” she added.

The second time, referring to one of Arroyo’s efforts to pull together a motion as his colleagues interjected comments and questions, Griggs pointed out, “When you guys do this, you muddy up the motion, and we have no idea what you guys want to do.”

Mayor Liz Alpert responded, “We know you don’t know what the motion is. We will make sure you know … OK? Thank you.”

This is the Payne Park Auditorium. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

After Arroyo offered yet another version of his motion, City Manager Brown was the first to point out that it was not clear. “That does not include their presentation today,” Brown pointed out, referring to The Players group.

“It does,” Arroyo said.

“It does not,” Brown responded.

Both Alpert and Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch concurred with Brown.

Brown told Arroyo, “You have to be clear.” Then Brown himself suggested language for the motion.

“But the language I said was very clear,” Arroyo responded.

“No, it wasn’t clear,” Alpert told Arroyo.

When Arroyo at one point said that it appeared Brown was recommending he make separate motions — one with just the Payne Park proposal; the second, with the U.S. 301 parcel option — Brown replied that he was not calling for separate motions.

“OK,” Arroyo said.

After Arroyo tried again, Commissioner Trice seconded the motion.

Yet another exchange ensued, as Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch tried to ensure that the motion would not allow the proposed new building in Payne Park.

Alpert said she wanted staff to be able to evaluate both options — allowing the new building on approximately 0.4 acres of Payne Park land or making its construction possible on the U.S. 301 site.

Ahearn-Koch countered that Arroyo’s most recent version of the motion called for a staff evaluation of the use of just the Payne Park Auditorium and the U.S. 301 property.

At one point, City Attorney Fournier interjected, “If you want to make that mandatory, that the new addition be on the [U.S.] 301 parcel, then that has to be clear in the motion.”

“I think we ought to have the flexibility of having both options,” Alpert told her colleagues.

Arroyo maintained that his latest motion had called for staff to analyze an option with The Players using the auditorium and building the new structure next to it in Payne Park, with a second option calling for The Players to use the auditorium and construct the new building on the U.S. 301 site.

Brown then told Arroyo he understood the motion.

However, Ahearn-Koch said she understood that the motion called for use of “only the auditorium; nothing else in Payne Park.”

That was when planner Black indicated his concern about the supermajority needed for the 30-year lease.

City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs reads the Rules of Procedure on Nov. 18, 2019. File image

City Auditor and Clerk Griggs interrupted again: “So, to clarify  — because, you know, you guys make me look like I’m not doing my job when it’s you all, and it’s kind of p**sing me off, because I’m trying to do my job, and you yell at me. But I’m trying to understand so [she and her staff] can understand what to do.”

“There was a motion and a second,” Arroyo replied.

“”I understand that,” Griggs told him. “You did a whole bunch of talking. I don’t know what the heck you were saying.”

Alpert sought clarity that the motion offered the option of the new building within Payne Park or on U.S. 301.

Arroyo replied that staff would review both alternatives, as he had expressed in the motion.

“Only one of the two will be coming back [for a board vote],” City Attorney Fournier pointed out.

After further discussion, City Manager Brown explained that members of The Players group would be “wasting their time and our time, if we don’t get a supermajority vote.” He also noted that, given the elections this year for the three district seats on the board, that the make-up of the commission could change after the November General Election.

Finally, planner Black told the commissioners, “Perhaps we can make this easier, because if you need the supermajority, drop the option for an expansion within the park and see what that motion does and just tell us [to] build the new facility at [U.S.] 301 [and] only use the [auditorium].”

“I agree with Mr. Black,” Brown said.

Arroyo concurred and went with the option that Black had suggested, including the 30-year lease and a clause that would adjust the annual payment to the city on the basis of an inflation factor.

Trice seconded it, and it passed unanimously.