Jan. 30 workshop planned for City Commission to discuss Blue Ribbon Committee to consider future of Van Wezel

Session to begin at 9 a.m. in SRQ Media Studio within City Hall Annex

During a workshop scheduled for 9 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 30, the Sarasota city commissioners will continue a discussion they began during their regular meeting on Jan. 3. It pertains to the appointment of a Blue Ribbon Committee to address the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

The workshop will be held in the SRQ Media Studio, which is located in the City Hall Annex standing at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch was the board member who proposed the workshop, as she and her colleagues talked on Jan. 3 about options for appointing people to the Blue Ribbon Committee. The commissioners had listened to remarks made by attorney Dan Bailey of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota, who was a member of a similar committee years ago that focused on the future of the original Sarasota High School, which opened in 1927.

The Sarasota County School Board ended up leasing that building to the Ringling College of Art + Design for use as a contemporary art museum and educational facility. It is known as the Sarasota Art Museum.

The 2008 lease with the School Board set a term of 99 years, at $1 per year.

Prior to the appointment of that 35-member committee, Bailey told the city commissioners, talk had arisen in the community about demolishing the old school “I knew it would never be torn down,” Bailey stressed.

Nonetheless, he said, the committee members “had to come together and try to figure out what would be a financially feasible way to keep it going.” That was their charge from the School Board, he explained.

After the commissioners devoted nearly an hour to the Blue Ribbon Committee options on Jan. 3, City Manager Marlon Brown recommended that they think about proposals offered in regard to the make-up of the committee, as well as Bailey’s urging that they find a good facilitator to lead the group.

The partnership agreement that the majority of the commissioners approved in April 2022, with the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation — previously the Van Wezel Foundation — called for the establishment of the committee no later than April, Brown pointed out. Thus, it was not urgent for the commissioners to create the body that day, he said.

Brown also reminded them that the purpose of the committee, as detailed in that agreement, is “to determine the viable and financially sustainable options for the future reuse, purpose, ownership and/or operation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall …”
Moreover, he emphasized, the discussions with the leaders of the Foundation had made it clear that, if the Van Wezel continues to function, it would not be able to compete with the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC) planned for The Bay Park on the city’s waterfront.

The Foundation leaders also had asserted in the agreement last year that the Foundation would not assume the expense of any renovations of the Van Wezel, Brown continued, and that it would not be involved in the facility’s operation after the SPAC opened. (See the related article in this issue.)

From the past to the present

During his Jan. 3 remarks, Bailey stressed the value of the facilitator for the committee that worked on options for the original Sarasota High School building, which faces U.S. 41 near downtown Sarasota.

“We had the good fortune of having Stuart Barger, who was with BMK Architects,” Bailey pointed out. Barger designed the Asolo Theatre, Bailey added. “He did a marvelous job getting us organized …”

In regard to the Van Wezel committee, “The key to it, I think,” Bailey said, is to find “a good facilitator to bring the input from the public because [the members] may arrive with preconceived notions … When they hear better ideas, particularly ones that may be financially feasible, you want them to keep an open mind …”

Mayor Kyle Battie concurred, citing the need for “everyone [on the committee] approaching this with an open mind and not slanted views [because] the Van Wezel … is a party of our history and is a part of … our arts and culture and the fabric of our city. … So we want to do what we can to preserve it or repurpose it …”

Battie added, “No one is talking about tearing it down. That’s the farthest thing from my brain, what little I have.”

Commissioner Erik Arroyo later emphasized, “We as a body have to be that filter that ensures that nobody with an agenda or a preconceived notion of how they are going to sway these meetings gets on this committee. … I think we should all be thinking about that.”

The Sarasota High committee conducted three publicized workshops, Bailey pointed out, during which community residents were invited to present their ideas on what could be done with the structure.

Although he did not remember the genesis of five reuse options that the committee members were to focus on, Bailey noted that most of them “are probably pretty good ones for you to consider …”

They were as follows:

  • Would the structure retain its historical character, its original use, its appearance and its setting?
  • Would its future use be compatible with the students who would be attending Sarasota High School on the adjacent campus?
  • Would the building be able to provide a measurable benefit to the community?
  • Would the building sponsor be a good steward, so that, following rehabilitation, the structure would be maintained in an appropriate manner on a continual basis?
  • Would the building sponsor have a financially viable plan to secure funding for the rehabilitation and ongoing operations?

“It took a long time to get [the committee work] done,” Bailey acknowledged, “but I thought the overall process [was good] for engaging the community and getting great ideas” without limiting the options.

Potential make-up of the Van Wezel committee

Commissioner Arroyo was the first member of the city board to raise the topic of how to handle the appointments to the Blue Ribbon Committee.

Should the commissioners ask for applications, as they do for advisory board appointments, he asked.

Another possibility, he continued, would be to establish criteria, with the help of city staff, for including on the committee individuals with expertise in architecture, historical preservation and engineering, for examples.

Commissioner Debbie Trice also proposed naming people to the committee who have specific areas of expertise critical to the discussions. If the commissioners had a list showing the types of expertise needed, Trice continued, they could choose people who met the criteria.

In response to her comments, Bailey talked of the value of Barger’s expertise in architecture. “He brought a lot of information to [the] committee [and] took us on inspections of the building.” Bailey added that Barger outlined its strengths and weaknesses. “Additional study might be a benefit to [the Blue Ribbon Committee], too,” he said.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert offered comments similar to Trice’s. “I think it’s important that we have certain criteria for the members of this [committee], at least have certain expertise,” Alpert said. “I think that’s going to be extremely, extremely, important.”

One way to achieve that, Alpert continued, would be to come up with the types of experts who should serve on the committee and then ask members of the public in those professions to submit applications. Each commissioner could choose one or two people out of that group whom they would like to see on the committee, Alpert added.

In response to commission questions, Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel, also proposed that the commissioners name someone with marketing expertise to the committee, a person who “literally deals with Broadway directly, as well as booking agents for artists.”

Commissioner Ahearn-Koch suggested that she and her colleagues decide on the number of members and then each of the commissioners appoint two people, as they did for the Charter Review Committee in 2021.

Nonetheless, she acknowledged that the future of the Van Wezel already is a “very divisive” issue. “There are a lot of facts to sift through and a lot of really important decisions and recommendations to make.”

City Manager Brown again reminded the commissioners that they did not need to make any decisions then. “Think about everything that you’ve heard today,” he continued, “and we can … have a further discussion.”

Brown also suggested that the board members think about who they would like to see as facilitators, “whether it’s someone with some civil engineering background, some historic preservation background, an architect [and someone with] theatrical expertise.”

Finally, the commissioners agreed on the idea of conducting a workshop on the issues. Brown promised them that he would look at available dates for that session and get it scheduled.