In discussions about new performing arts hall on city waterfront, future of Van Wezel remains unclear

City commissioners acknowledge public’s opposition to demolition

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is located on the city of Sarasota’s bayfront. File photo

During recent discussions about how the City of Sarasota will pay for a new performing arts venue within The Bay Park on the city’s 53 downtown waterfront acres, questions also have arisen about the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

(See the related articles in this issue.)

In a 223-page report released in October 2015, AMS Planning & Research Corp., — acting on behalf of the Van Wezel Foundation — noted that the Van Wezel opened in 1970. “Ideally situated overlooking Sarasota Bay, [the venue] is a well-regarded community asset and an anchor for a vibrant performing arts scene that makes Sarasota a destination for regional residents and visitors. It is fair to say that Van Wezel Hall is the cornerstone of Florida’s Cultural Coast,” the report pointed out in its executive summary.

With city leaders’ support, the document continued, the Van Wezel Foundation “engaged AMS Planning & Research Corp., which is based in Fairfield, Conn., to evaluate [the Van Wezel’s] operations and its facilities,” and to assess its potential to serve “as the cultural anchor of the Gulf Coast for another fifty years.”

The firm’s team found that the Van Wezel earned 95.9% of its total revenue in the 2014 fiscal year, “much higher than the average for performing arts facilities (67% to 79%). This is likely unsustainable over time given competition for content, calendar constraints and increasing costs,” the report added.

Yet, city leaders have noted in recent years that since Mary Bensel has been executive director of the facility, it has operated in the black, except when the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to be closed for months. She has held her position since December 2007.

A February 2016 report to the City Commission said that the Van Wezel had had “positive economic results for 6 consecutive years,” with total ticket sales having increased by 35% since 2010.

Mary Bensel. Photo from Facebook

At the time its analysis was performed, AMS was working on the assumption that the Sarasota Orchestra would continue to present performances at the Van Wezel. Subsequently, the leaders of the Orchestra tried to win City Commission approval for a new venue in Payne Park. When that initiative failed, they began a search outside the city that ultimately led them to setting on a Fruitville Road site.

“Importantly,” the analysis continued, “A facilities assessment completed by AMS in collaboration with theater consultants Fisher Dachs Associates confirmed that the current physical building does not accommodate the needs of either [Van Wezel] programming or the Sarasota Orchestra.” To bring the facility “up to current standards of customer and operating expectations would require investments of tens of millions of dollars and major reconstruction,” though the expense at that time would have been capped at $15 million, AMS noted, because of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations regarding renovations to structures in a floodplain.

Concern about sea level rise was one of the major reasons that Orchestra leaders cited for their desire to leave the organization’s Sarasota bayfront facilities.

This December 2019 image shows a concept for the new Sarasota performing arts center. It was presented to the City Commission during a discussion of a new PAC. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

AMS further pointed out, “It is not economically practical to increase seat count [in the Van Wezel] due to physical limitations of the hall,” including its size, its fan-shaped layout and the adjoining lobby, “which prevents expansion without major reconstruction.”

AMS added, “While it is likely that the facility could continue to function for some time with modest investment, changing customer and operating expectations suggest that a major renovation would be necessary for the hall to achieve first-class standards, now and for the next fifty years.”
Nine “major performing arts centers” in Florida had opened since the Van Wezel made its debut, the report pointed out, including the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, which has been able to snare major touring Broadway shows such as Hamilton.

The Straz Center in Tampa has five theaters, including the 2,610-seat Carol Morsani Hall. Photo by Raymond Wynn, December 2021, from Google Maps

The AMS team provided four scenarios regarding the future of the Van Wezel; however — once again — they were developed with the expectation that the Sarasota Orchestra still would be scheduling performances at the hall.

The “Status Quo” option cited the need to maintain the facility, including making necessary repairs, with an annual capital investment pegged between $400,000 and $500,000.

Option 2 focused on limited renovation, noting that if the Orchestra relocated, the potential existed for additional programming. That was the scenario that cited the necessity of capping improvements at $15 million.

Option 3 said that an independent structure could be utilized “to house ‘missing’ spaces,” and a “‘[m]id-range’ investment” of $20 million to $40 million would provide the potential for “additional rental revenue, expanded educational offerings, and additional diversified programming.”

Option 4 considered a new venue with approximately 2,000 square feet of performance area, “with or without orchestra,” with ancillary spaces “as in Scenario 3 incorporated in overall project.” That expense was estimated between $150 million to $525 million.

Whither the ‘Purple Cow’?

These are factors that have led to the Van Wezel’s success, the 2015 AMS study says. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In February 2016, representatives of the Bayfront 20:20 group, who were among the early proponents of The Bay Park on the city waterfront, presented the AMS report on the Van Wezel to the City Commission.

In that report, they emphasized a number of constraints on the Van Wezel’s ability to remain competitive in the future.

Among them were the following:

  • “While considered ‘iconic’ by some, the hall’s interior and exterior are worn and outdated.
  • “The acoustical environment is inadequate for live classical music.
  • “Accommodations and efficiency backstage do not meet contemporary standards.
  • “Building systems from HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment] to elevators have surpassed their expected life cycle and should be replaced.” In May 2020, the commissioners voted 4-1 to purchase a new “chiller” to provide air conditioning at the Van Wezel.
  • “Economic realities demand a greater number of seats to improve gross potential and assure competitiveness.”

(The Bayfront 20:20 group eventually morphed into the Bay Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that is raising private funding and overseeing the park, under a partnership agreement with the city similar to the situation proposed between the city and the Van Wezel Foundation.)

In a June 2018 article in the Observer, renowned, award-winning Sarasota architect Carl Abbott pointed to the fact that calling the Van Wezel too small “is the wrong way of looking at it. Most small cities have two public auditoriums,” he wrote: “one large and one small. The elegant solution would be to build a larger, new auditorium nearby … while simultaneously reducing the capacity of the Van Wezel, which would finally allow for a central aisle. Downsizing could also include the removal of the lower levels. Together with additional barriers, this would reduce the problem of rising tides.”

Julian Norman Webb. Image from his LinkedIn account

Another architect quoted in the article, Julian Norman Webb, referenced the advocacy at the time of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization — another precursor to the Bay Park Conservancy. That group was focused on a new performing arts hall as part of the city’s proposed bayfront park. “There’s clearly a strategy to present a project that is governed by an apparently arbitrary calendar put out by Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization,” Webb wrote. “We risk being made a slave to this timetable.”

Webb added, “Wise decisions and informed community debate (in lieu of top-down weighted surveys and presentations) should be paramount. The proposed project should serve the community.”

Additionally, during the years of planning for The Bay Park, the various entities involved in that process learned of strong public support for the Van Wezel. In past discussions, city commissioners have talked about repurposing the “Purple Cow,” acknowledging residents’ adamant opposition to its demolition.

This graphic in a May 2018 report from a group that was a precursor to the Bay Park Conservancy shows public comments from focus groups in regard to the future of the Van Wezel. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Nonetheless, during the March 21 and April 4 commission meetings, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch and residents questioned whether the Van Wezel Foundation really wants to keep the Van Wezel on the bayfront, if the SPAC is built.

At one point, Ahearn-Koch asked Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel, about the life expectancy of the structure.

“I would say perhaps 10 years we could go,” Bensel replied, adding that the Van Wezel could be repurposed, if that was the commission’s desire.

The Foundation partnership agreement that the majority of the city commissioners approved on April 4 calls for “a Blue Ribbon Committee” to be convened by the city, within one year of the effective date of the agreement, “to determine the viable and financially sustainable options for future reuse, purpose, ownership and/or operation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to ensure that the reuse options do not compete directly with the [SPAC].”

The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is among community arts and cultural organizations that produce their own shows. Image courtesy Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County

During the March 21 discussion, Cheryl Mendelson, the Foundation CEO, pointed out that community arts groups that produce their own shows could perform at the Van Wezel after the SPAC has been completed, as the Foundation would not see that type of use as competition.

However, members of the public have questioned that assertion, based on the language in the agreement.

Attorney Dan Lobeck, a city resident who heads up the nonprofit Control Growth Now, pointed out in an April 4 email to the commissioners that the non-compete clause, among other details, constitutes “a recipe for demolition.”

During the April 4 discussion, Ahearn-Koch said she agreed with Lobeck. “I don’t read that [clause as saying] we are committed to repurposing and reusing the Van Wezel, as an iconic structure, for something else.”

She had spoken with many people about that language, she added. Her desire, she stressed, was to see the paragraph revised to make it clear that the Van Wezel would be kept in place. “It can be repurposed … [It] can be reimagined.”

This is information provided by the Van Wezel Foundation about flood zone considerations in regard to construction of a new performing arts venue. Image from the Foundation

City Attorney Fournier concurred with her assessment: “There’s no commitment in here to preserve that structure.”

Ahearn-Koch also pointed out that the agreement did not include any language guaranteeing future funding for the Van Wezel.

The paragraph following the one she had read (above) said, “Any operating reserves from the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall held by the City upon the opening of the new PAC shall be allocated by the City, first to repurposing the Hall structure if it is determined that the Hall can be used for an allowable purpose, and secondly, to SPAC to establish a capital maintenance fund for the PAC.”

Fournier said that the repurposing of the Van Wezel is a policy decision for the commission. Referencing earlier comments, he added that his understanding is that the Foundation wants to ensure that the Van Wezel would not be direct competition for the SPAC. “I can’t believe that they would be concerned otherwise what the city did.”

These are details about the Van Wezel in a fact sheet that the Van Wezel Foundation presented in March, regarding its plans for a new performing arts hall. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Commissioner Liz Alpert stressed that the discussion that afternoon was not about “tearing [the Van Wezel] down.” She acknowledged, “There was an overwhelming support for keeping it in place.”

Yet, Alpert also emphasized of the Van Wezel, “That building is subject to sea level rise. It’s our most vulnerable building in the city.”

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