Payne Park will not be new home for the Sarasota Orchestra, City Commission decides in 4-1 vote

Board members encourage leaders of the arts organization to keep looking for a venue in the city

Advocates for maintaining Payne Park as a park wear yellow as they help fill the City Commission Chambers on the night of May 20. News Leader photo

Payne Park is off the table as the future home of the Sarasota Orchestra, the City Commission agreed on a 4-1 vote on May 20. Nonetheless, the organization is welcome to come back to the board with other options, as Commissioner Willie Shaw put it in his motion.

“The biggest issue that we have here,” he said, “is we would be setting a precedent that we really don’t want to set” if the commissioners were to allow Sarasota Orchestra to move into a city park.

Shaw referenced multiple issues relevant to the proposal, especially the environmental concerns of paving over greenspace and the potential for exacerbating traffic and parking issues in downtown Sarasota.

Further, Shaw stressed, “It’s not our job to find the Orchestra a place.”

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Hagen Brody voiced dismay that City Manager Tom Barwin had not been “intimately involved” with representatives of the Orchestra in seeking out alternatives.

Other commissioners joined Brody in lamenting the fact that they had no other choices.

“We haven’t been given any other options. … [Payne Park is] all we’re looking at,” Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said. “What we’ve been presented, I cannot accept at this point in time.”

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie emphasized that she had many questions the Orchestra leaders had not answered that night. Among her concerns was the fact that no traffic study had been undertaken to analyze how the Orchestra’s programming in Payne Park would affect traffic, she pointed out.

This graphic presented by the Sarasota Orchestra in February shows how the tennis courts in Payne Park could be relocated to make room for a new performing arts hall. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Barwin indicated that the Orchestra leaders wanted to hear the commission’s view on their proposal before undertaking more extensive analyses.

She and other commissioners also voiced concerns about the potential for the city to face litigation if they allowed the plan to go forward. That worry was based on the terms of the 1925 deed conveying to the city the property now known as Payne Park from C.N. Payne and Martha Payne. In a May 7 memo for the commissioners, City Attorney Robert Fournier referred to case law that indicated the potential that the commission could withstand a legal challenge if it allowed the Orchestra to build a new performing arts venue on about 7 acres of the park.

“I do not see [the Orchestra] as a ‘kindred use,’” Ahearn-Koch pointed out, referring to Fournier’s memo.

Kathleen Emerson Shumate makes a point to the commissioners on May 20. News Leader photo

Among the more than 70 speakers who addressed the board Monday night — by count of The Sarasota News Leader — was Kathleen Emerson Shumate of Barboursville, Va., a descendant of C.N. Payne and — she pointed out — Ralph Waldo Emerson. She grew up in a family who held dear the views of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau regarding nature, Shumate added. Emerson “believed that the route for mankind to connect with the Divine is through the contemplation of the natural world,” Shumate told the board.

“Saving an area for all people to enjoy nature was obviously important to Calvin Payne,” Shumate added. The idea of taking a piece of the park to create a new home for the Orchestra, she said, “is a dishonor to my great-great-grandfather.”

Only Mayor Liz Alpert — who cast the “No” vote on Shaw’s motion — championed the vision of the Orchestra’s leaders.

“Any community would be dying to get this kind of orchestra investment in their community,” she told her colleagues.

“Our cultural assets here in Sarasota are … extremely important,” she said, just as the parks and greenspaces are. What makes Sarasota stand out as a resort community, she stressed, is the arts. Having the Orchestra in a new building “will only enhance [Payne Park].”

After the 4-1 vote, Alpert told her colleagues, “I hope you all realize what you’ve just done.”

Community opposition to the prospect of the Orchestra relocating to the park had grown after Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the Orchestra, unveiled Payne Park on Feb. 26 as the choice of the arts organization as the site of its new venue.

The Orchestra’s patrons could use the Sarasota County parking garage at the intersection of School Avenue and Ringling Boulevard — which sees few vehicles at night and on weekends, he noted. Additionally, with a new Sarasota County Central Energy Plant planned for part of the surface parking area at the garage, McKenna continued, the Orchestra potentially could use that facility for its energy needs. Thus, two primary concerns — parking and utilities — could be accommodated easily with the Payne Park location.

Patrons of the park — and environmental advocates — protested the location, saying the public has the right to use the entirety of the park.

People who play tennis at the courts in the park and neighborhood opponents of the plans joined forces a few weeks ago, creating an organization called Preserve Payne Park. They collected almost 1,800 signatures on an online petition, urging the City Commission not to allow the Orchestra to take over a section of the park, which would necessitate the relocation of the tennis courts. So many of them showed up for the City Commission meeting Monday evening that City Manager Tom Barwin had to explain that, to maintain compliance with the city fire code, he had ask the overflow audience members to move out of the Commission Chambers and into one of two other rooms where the meeting would be live-streamed.

This is the banner from the Preserve Payne Park website. Image courtesy Preserve Payne Park

The Commission Chambers, he pointed out, cannot hold more than 225 people, and it has 147 seats. Later, Mayor Alpert clarified that standing room is available only for 66 people.

As the hours ticked by, however, fewer members of the public remained at City Hall. At one point during the discussion, Shaw noted that the commissioners had been there 12 hours, as their afternoon session began at 1:30 p.m.

Later, Commissioner Brody mentioned that it was approaching 2 a.m. as the board members worked toward a vote.

A vision and the community outcry

During remarks at the outset of the meeting, City Manager Barwin talked of the history of the city’s relationship with the Orchestra. For almost 70 years, he said, the organization “has been one of the foundations and pillars of our very strong arts and entertainment culture here, which goes a great way to enhancing our quality of life and the local economy.”

The Sarasota Orchestra made its home on city bayfront property in 1955, he continued. If it does move to another area, that will free up 4 acres for The Bay, the 53-acre public park and arts and cultural site whose master plan the City Commission approved in September 2018. (See the related articles in this issue.)

This is one banner from the Sarasota Orchestra website. Image courtesy Sarasota Orchestra

Tom Ryan, the chair-elect of the Orchestra board, then talked of how leaders of the organization engaged in a comprehensive study over a period of about five years, working with consultants, to find a new home.

The Orchestra was the first nonprofit arts organization in the area, Ryan pointed out, “to make a major gift to advance planning for [The Bay project].”

The board members have been concerned that the build-out of The Bay could take from 10 to 20 years, he added, calling that a primary factor in their decision to move.

His board’s goal, he continued, has been to find a new location for a venue that will be planned to have a 100-year life.

Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the Orchestra, explained during the Feb. 26 meeting with the city commissioners that sea level rise and the frustrations of inflexibility the organization faces in scheduling its programming were other significant factors in the desire for a new venue.

On May 20, McKenna provided more details about the search the Orchestra had undertaken. “We looked at 13 possibilities,” he said, some of them private and others also owned by the city.

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

Ultimately, he said, only two proved to have the space the Orchestra’s leadership and consultants felt would be adequate not only for the type of facility needed but also to comply with the city’s parking requirements.

One piece of property was under private ownership, he continued; discussions with the owners did not prove fruitful.

That left Payne Park.

Among other city sites the Orchestra investigated, he said, was the city parkland at the intersection of Fruitville and Beneva Roads, but the potential for flooding from Phillippi Creek ruled that out, McKenna said.

Another option was the Bobby Jones Golf Club. However, that no longer was viable after the City Commission voted last year to keep the full 54 holes open and make improvements to the facilities.

The Orchestra also considered the Marian Anderson Place Brownfield site in North Sarasota, he noted, but concerns about access points eliminated that prospect.

The Sarasota Fairgrounds underwent scrutiny, too, he added, before it was ruled out.

This is the Sarasota Orchestra Board of Directors. Image from the organization’s website

McKenna also stressed that the Orchestra leaders already are looking at a minimum timeline of five years to complete a new structure, with two years allocated to design and another three projected for construction.

After the Orchestra representatives completed their presentation, Mayor Alpert held up a stack of forms to indicate that a multitude of people had signed up to address the commission on the Payne Park proposal.

Arguably the youngest person to offer comments was a 10-year-old named Benjamin, who did not provide his last name on the Request to Speak form.

Benjamin talked of the young people who use the Skate Park at Payne Park, along with those who play Frisbee golf, who walk their dogs and who simply enjoy the view. “Why don’t they build it somewhere else?” he said of the Orchestra leaders and their plan for the new performing arts hall.

Sami Leigh Scott, a founder and the vice president of Preserve Payne Park, pointed out to the commissioners that nearly 100 opponents of the proposal “spoke out against this proposed land grab” during the March workshop that followed the Orchestra’s Feb. 26 presentation to the commission. “Payne Park is one of the few public squares where Sarasotans from all walks of life come together,” she emphasized.

On the other side of the issue, Melissa Derstine told the board that she lives near Payne Park, “so this really affects me.”

“The Orchestra is not just for the rich,” she continued, lashing out at comments from some of the detractors of the arts organization’s proposal. Moreover, she said, “I believe that the internet frenzy has caused some problems with everybody exaggerating what’s gonna happen.”

A graphic shows statistics for the Sarasota Orchestra’s 2016-17 season. Image courtesy Sarasota Orchestra

“I use the park all the time,” Derstine said, but the Orchestra needs a new home.

She talked of having attended a couple of concerts at the organization’s Holley Hall on the bayfront. “This world class orchestra has folding chairs. How awful for them!”

Yet another representative of Preserve Payne Park, however, talked of the Orchestra’s failure to undertake the necessary due diligence before proposing the new venue in downtown Sarasota. One big reason the Orchestra chose the park, Fiona Dias said, was its desire for “a location with curb appeal,” so it could attract the necessary private funds to construct a new $100-million facility.

Having reached this point, she added, “This is a public relations debacle [for the Orchestra]. … The community is outraged at this audacious plan.”