City commissioners unanimous in approving hiring of ‘owners’ representative’ to keep city manager apprised of planning for new performing arts center

Ahearn-Koch initially questions timing of city manager’s request

Although Sarasota City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch initially voiced reservations about it, she ended up joining her colleagues in a 5-0 vote of support on Jan. 3 for City Manager Marlon Brown’s request to hire an owners’ representative that would be involved in the planning, design and engineering of the proposed new Sarasota Performing Arts Center.

The firm that won the bid is Professional Facilities Management Inc. (PFM) of Providence, R.I. The company will be paid on an hourly basis, as noted in the contract.

As Brown put it on Jan. 3, PFM will be “the eyes and ears” for city leaders as a task force appointed by the Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC) Foundation reviews proposals submitted by architectural firms interested in designing the venue that the Foundation envisions as a replacement for the city’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, on Dec. 19, 2022, the SPAC Foundation issued a news release saying that it had received applications from 43 architectural firms located around the world, vying for the SPAC design award. The new facility would stand in The Bay Park on the city’s 53 acres of waterfront property. Brown’s formal request for the item on the City Commission’s Jan. 3 meeting agenda noted that the SPAC would comprise 216,000 square feet. That form also pointed out that the city would own the facility, though its operation and management details are “still to be determined.”

The Foundation task force will narrow the list of applicants to 15 to 20 candidates, the Foundation noted in its announcement. Then those firms would be invited to submit designs.

On Jan. 3, in response to a question from Ahearn-Koch, Brown said he could not provide an estimate for the expense of the owners’ representative’s efforts. He did not know how long it would take the task force to complete its work, he pointed out. However, Brown emphasized that PFM would undertake its work on an “as-needed basis.”

Ahearn-Koch had asked that the item be pulled from the board’s first Consent Agenda of routine business matters for the Jan. 3 meeting. She initially said of Brown’s request, “My concern … is that potentially this commission is putting the cart before the horse.”

Although the board members voted 3-2 on April 4, 2022 to approve a partnership agreement with the SPAC Foundation regarding the sharing of expenses for the new performing arts venue, the details of the SPAC proposal are not expected until the Foundation presents the city its proposed implementation agreement this spring.

Ahearn-Koch and then-Mayor Erik Arroyo voted against the partnership agreement, voicing worries about the prospect that the city would not be able to shoulder its 50% share of the expense of the SPAC, which has been estimated in a range of $300 million to $350 million.

“What I think would be the best path forward,” Ahearn-Koch continued on Jan. 3, “is for us to get that implementation agreement that has all of the details about the financing, about the cost, about the construction, all the details about the ability to reuse or upgrade the current Van Wezel — Can we flood-proof it or can we upgrade it to be a facility that we would want to reuse in the future?”

She added, “Hiring an owners’ rep at this point further commits us to actually building a new facility, where I’m not so sure that’s where this commission is quite yet. I would hate to overcommit and then have to backtrack our step.”

Brown pointed out that the agenda item under discussion “has nothing necessarily to do with whether we keep the Van Wezel or not. It’s to make sure that we have someone who is representing us, the city,” in the architectural process.

He also referenced public comments over recent weeks that have indicated a perception of city leaders’ desire to demolish the Van Wezel. “I have never gone on record with this commission” with any such proposal, he stressed. “I’ve always said to this commission that we will take a look at how we can protect the Van Wezel and repurpose it.”
Since the Foundation’s process for choosing the SPAC architect is underway, Brown continued, he would like the commissioners’ approval of the contract with PFM.

Moreover, Brown maintained that City Attorney Robert Fournier had told the commissioners in April that they could get out of the partnership agreement “at any time.”

Fournier reminded the commissioners that the selection process for the architectural firm for the SPAC was authorized by the April partnership agreement.

However, Fournier continued, he wanted “to clarify one thing” that Brown had told the commissioners. “I don’t think I said you could get out of the initial agreement … and I remember saying you had an obligation, as you would in any agreement, to act in good faith.”

Fournier added that he believed he told the commissioners in April that if any one of seven specific items in the forthcoming implementation agreement could not be worked out to their satisfaction, such as the total project budget, “There was no obligation to approve the implementation agreement. You had to be convinced that it was in the city’s best interest to do that.”

Commission support for the owners’ rep

The first commissioner to voice support for the hiring of PFM was Debbie Trice, who was elected in November 2022.

“One of the reasons that I’m so eager to have [PFM] on board is neither municipal governments nor foundations are known for having any kind of expertise in looking at profitability,” she said. The commissioners had not discussed whether the proposed SPAC would be able to make money, “Or is this going to end up being a white elephant?”

Therefore, Trice added, “I think it’s important that we get someone with profit knowledge involved at this point. We don’t have to make any decisions until we get recommendations from them.”

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert told her colleagues, “I couldn’t agree more with Commissioner Trice. “I do think we need somebody that can tell us how many seats is the best number of seats. And if we do that, are we really able to accomplish our goals?”

The Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation leadership has stressed that a larger new performing arts venue is necessary to compete with other facilities in the region to secure first-run Broadway on Tour shows, for example.

However, Alpert continued, she did not believe it should be PFM’s responsibility to decide whether the Van Wezel could be renovated to continue serving a role in The Bay Park.

Commissioner Arroyo also agreed with Brown’s request for the hiring of the firm. “We need an expert on our side, somebody that is objective and can watch out for our best interests. … We’re not performance hall experts,” he added, “nor are we construction engineer, architects or anything of that sort.”

James L. “Lynn” Singleton, president, CEO and founder of PFM, who was present for the Jan. 3 meeting, explained that he established the firm in the early 1980s. “We have 10 accounts in five states,” he added, including two in Florida. Both of those — in Fort Myers and Coral Springs in Broward County, he said — were more than 30 years old.

“More recently,” Singleton continued, “we built and opened two facilities in North Carolina — one in the [Research] Triangle, in Durham, and the other one … in Greensboro … Both facilities have been enormously successful.”

“The role we would play — to make it very simple — is we’re going to be an honest broker,” Singleton explained: Brown would be able to ask for an opinion on an issue, and Singleton and his staff would respond on the basis of their experience, providing options. “We’re on call as needed.”

Ahearn-Koch reiterated her concern about the hiring of PFM that day. Nonetheless, she said, “I feel confident in … the company that was chosen …”

Brown then told the board members that unless they planned to stop the selection process for the SPAC architect, he needed an owners’ rep to watch how that transpired.

The expense of hiring PFM

Ahearn-Koch also voiced worries about the expense of hiring PFM. “Is it going to be $300,000 or $300?”

“Either the commission trusts me to make the right decision in terms of the use of [PFM] or [it does not],” Brown responded.

Vice Mayor Alpert pointed out that, as a family law attorney, she routinely fields questions from clients about the cost of her services. “ ‘Well, it depends,’ ” she added, is her answer to them. “It depends on how much conflict there is, depends on whether you get your documents in. … And the city manager will have control over how much he utilizes [PFM],” Alpert emphasized.

Moreover, Alpert continued, “Those costs can be tracked … and if it looks like it’s getting out of hand, there is something we can do as a commission.”

When Ahearn-Koch then asked whether the commissioners would receive regular updates on Brown’s use of the company, Brown replied that he would “have no problem providing the commission with regular reports.”

Finally, he and the board members settled on monthly updates.

“We need owners reps in a lot of areas,” Mayor Kyle Battie pointed out. “We’re not experts in a lot of areas, in a lot of contracts that we get into. … We need people to represent us, just as [City Attorney] Fournier does … And when it comes to price, we don’t really know.”

Alpert ended up making the motion to approve the contract with PFM and to call for periodic updates from Brown on the firm’s activities and expenses. Arroyo seconded it.

Commissioner Trice asked about adding an amendment to one part of the agreement with PFM, so the firm’s responsibilities would include the requirement that it be involved in the planning for the SPAC, as well as the design and the construction process.

Alpert replied that she would be agreeable to that, but she noted that a later section of the agreement called for the firm to “attend planning, construction, coordination, and other meetings as directed by the city.” Still, she concurred with Trice that the modification of the earlier section “makes it clearer …”

Arroyo voiced his support for the change.

Then Ahearn-Koch announced that she would vote for the hiring of PFM, noting that she had not been aware prior to the discussion that Brown wanted the company to start work immediately.