City Commission makes it clear about representation it expects on Bayfront 20:20 planning committee

Board members debate timing and wording of a motion, as no leaders of the organization working on a new city cultural arts district were present at the March 21 meeting

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is owned by the city. File photo
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is owned by the city. File photo

Although they ended up with a unanimous vote in support of the proposal, disagreement arose among the Sarasota city commissioners on Monday, March 21, as they discussed three members’ assertion that a city staff person and a representative of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) board serve on a small planning committee focused on the future of 42 bayfront acres.

Commissioner Susan Chapman had asked that the matter be put on the agenda.

As Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 is creating that group, Chapman said, she wants to make certain one person from both the city and the PREP board be included, “in order to assist with the planning and the visualization of our bayfront, which is our property.”

Sarasota 20:20 has been working since late 2013 to create a plan for a cultural arts district on the bayfront, including the prospect of replacing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall with a larger facility that could better accommodate programming for local organizations — such as the Sarasota Orchestra and the Sarasota Ballet — as well as the types of performances the Van Wezel already hosts.

On its website, the organization says it is entering “Phase III Partnership: Master Planning” to reach its goal, which encompasses city property from Boulevard of the Arts to Payne Terminal, surrounding the Van Wezel. “This phase will involve site planning, facility planning, outreach and fundraising,” the website notes.

After Chapman raised her concerns during the City Commission’s regular meeting on March 21, Commissioner Liz Alpert responded that Bayfront 20:20 representatives planned to appear again before the board in May with more information about the small planning committee. At that time, Alpert continued, the commission could discuss placing a liaison on that committee. Because no one from Bayfront 20:20 could be present on March 21, she added, it “really is unfair” to discuss the matter further.

City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo
City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

“I’m not talking about a liaison,” Chapman replied. Instead, she pointed out, she wants to be certain the planning group has city representatives who will be active participants. “One thing I would hate to happen,” she added, is for that committee to come back to the commission at some point with a proposal on which it wanted a “Yes” or “No” decision, “and we would have to say that this doesn’t meet our city requirements.”

“I have to agree at this point, since we are the stewards of the 42 acres, and any decision made should be with city involvement,” Mayor Willie Shaw said. “It’s part of our responsibility to the taxpayers in this community to have that [representation on the planning committee].”

“I don’t disagree that there should be city involvement,” Alpert told him. Nonetheless, she reiterated that that discussion should be held at a later time, with Bayfront 20:20 leaders present.

“I agree thoroughly with Commissioner Alpert,” Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell said.

Then Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out that she received no answer when she asked about the membership of the planning committee during the Feb. 22 workshop the City Commission held about the status of the Bayfront 20:20 initiative. “I don’t know that having another meeting is going to get that answer,” she added. “I think it’s important enough to get a “Yes” or “No” [on city representation on the planning committee] before we go forward. … If it’s not a “Yes,” then I have some concerns.”

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown noted that during the workshop, Bayfront 20:20 leaders said they were not ready to share the membership of the committee.

City Commissioner Liz Alpert. Image from Liz Alpert Law
City Commissioner Liz Alpert. Image from Liz Alpert Law

Alpert again told her colleagues that Bayfront 20:20 representatives would be back before the commission in late May, based on what Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, had told her. Then the commissioners could address the question of the committee’s membership, she said, adding of Bayfront 20:20 leaders, “I don’t even think their plans are fully formed.”

“I agree with this board in taking caution,” Freeland Eddie responded. “If we’re planning, then we’re at the table when planning occurs.” Even though Bayfront 20:20 leaders have said they will come back with a report in May, Freeland Eddie pointed out, they need to understand the commission’s expectations. “We don’t have to have 100 answers, but one of those [needs to be a reply to the question], ‘Are we at the table?’”

“I don’t want to reach the end of May,” Chapman said, “and they have recruited a board that doesn’t include the city representative and they say, ‘Oh, you’ll be a liaison on your own land.’”

Shaw agreed with Chapman and Freeland Eddie. Then he asked for a motion.

Alpert suggested the board state its expectation that the city will be part of the planning process.

“This is our property,” Shaw told her. “This is ours.” If the City Commission cedes it to someone else, he continued, “then we’re not at the table, we’re on the table … Nobody else should come back and tell the commission what we are going to do.”

“I don’t disagree with that, Mayor,” Alpert responded. “I think the city should be the one who says what happens on that property.” Nonetheless, she added, she did not feel the board was at the point where it should specify who will serve as the city representatives on the planning committee.

The Bayfront 20:20 website lists these supporters of its planning efforts. Image from the website
The Bayfront 20:20 website lists these supporters of its planning efforts. Image from the website

Shaw concurred with her latter comment.

Chapman made a motion that the City Commission instruct Bayfront 20:20 that it has the expectation that a representative of the Parks, Recreation and Environmental Planning board and a city staff member will serve on the small planning group, “and it will be more than a liaison role.”

Freeland Eddie seconded the motion.

Because of Chapman’s insertion of the word “expectation,” Alpert said, she would support the motion. It passed unanimously.