Mayor Brody revives potential of Payne Park for new Sarasota Orchestra venue

Members of Preserve Payne Park Coalition gathering information and preparing for another fight

Joseph McKenna. Image courtesy Sarasota Orchestra

The president and CEO of Sarasota Orchestra says he was surprised last week when he learned that Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody had asked for a new City Commission discussion about the potential of the Orchestra’s relocation to a portion of Payne Park.

“I didn’t expect it,” Joseph McKenna said of the Feb. 12 email Brody wrote City Manager Marlon Brown. McKenna told The Sarasota News Leader that he received a copy of the letter on Feb. 12.

Brody asked that Brown place an item on the City Commission’s March 1 agenda, regarding “discussion and direction to allow the Sarasota Orchestra and City staff to further explore options for a Sarasota Orchestra location in and around Payne Park.”

On June 25, 2018, McKenna and other representatives of Sarasota Orchestra appeared before the City Commission to announce that they had decided to proceed with an endeavor to secure a new site within the city, instead of waiting to see how the development of the city’s 53-acre bayfront park would unfold. The creation of all the new arts and cultural amenities on that property could take years, Orchestra leaders said, and their needs were pressing.

Major supporters had been using the word “urgency,” McKenna told the commissioners, in talking about finding a place for a facility where the orchestra would have both rehearsal and performance space with the desired acoustical quality. Continued growth of the programming at the venues the Orchestra has to share with other arts groups also had underscored the need to move to a new venue, McKenna said.

Then, in 2019, the Sarasota Orchestra leaders made another big announcement: Of all the options reviewed, a Payne Park site — in downtown Sarasota — was the best.

Yet, a groundswell of community opposition led to the City Commission voting 4-1 on May 20, 2019 to refuse the Orchestra’s request to proceed with planning for such a move.

Brody was among that majority.

“The biggest issue that we have here,” then-District 1 Commissioner Willie Shaw said at the time, “is we would be setting a precedent that we really don’t want to set” if the board members 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.

Members of the Preserve Payne Park Coalition had collected almost 1,800 signatures on an online petition in their fight against the Orchestra’s plans.

Advocates for maintaining Payne Park as a park wear yellow as they help fill the City Commission Chambers on the night of May 20, 2019. File photo

More than 70 members of the public addressed the commissioners, with the majority pleading for city leaders to keep the park as it was.

Commissioner Liz Alpert was the only city board member to support the Sarasota Orchestra’s proposal.

In his Feb. 12 email to City Manager Brown, Mayor Brody referenced that 2019 meeting, noting, “The concept presented by the Orchestra replaced the tennis courts, tennis facility, and established water features on the northwest corner of the park with a new Orchestra Hall and parking lot. The motion and subsequent vote that rejected that specific location at Payne Park went a step further, perhaps prematurely, to exclude not just that location but the entire property and existing structures from further evaluation.”

Brody added, “At the time, I felt there was simply not enough due diligence put towards finding other suitable locations within the city limits. Since that decision in 2019, I along with many others, have worked tirelessly to identify another plausible location that keeps the Sarasota Orchestra in the City of Sarasota and preferably to many, downtown. I have personally inquired into locations that seemingly could have worked at first blush, but for different and legitimate reasons, ultimately, were not feasible.

Furthermore,” Brody continued, “since that decision the Commission has commenced the process of converting over 200 acres to new park space in our City, more than any other Commission in our history.”
He was referring to plans for a portion of Bobby Jones Golf Club.

“Nevertheless,” Brody wrote, “as we sit today, it’s clear the City of Sarasota faces the urgent and troubling likelihood of losing our Orchestra which we’ve hosted for over 70 years in the City of Sarasota.”

A show of support

With Sarasota Orchestra leaders entertaining alternatives for a new venue within the unincorporated part of the county, the city commissioners did vote unanimously in January 2020 to adopt a resolution expressing their desire to keep the organization in the city.

One of the resolution’s “whereas” clauses said, “The City Commission considers the relocation of the Sarasota Orchestra within the City to be a high priority and reiterates its desire to work closely with the Orchestra to bring its new home into reality to serve residents, visitors, the business community, musicians and all who value quality live performances and a culture of creativity which will endure over the next 100 years, in the heart of the cultural corridor which has nurtured and grown the Orchestra to world class status during its initial 65 years in the City of Sarasota.”

During the Feb. 17 telephone interview with the News Leader, McKenna noted, “The Orchestra has continued its exploration for a new site,” although the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down that process in the April/May time frame of 2020.

Mayor Hagen Brody. File photo

In his Feb. 12 email, Mayor Brody also pointed out, “While I remain displeased with [the Payne Park] concept as originally presented, in keeping with our mission to maintain the City of Sarasota as a cultural and arts center for generations to come, I have come to believe we as a Commission must act and should reconsider our prohibition that would allow the Sarasota Orchestra to further explore concepts that could potentially emerge as a mutually beneficial marriage between Payne Park and the Orchestra.”

McKenna of Sarasota Orchestra declined to offer any detailed comments on the mayor’s email. “The Orchestra respects agendas and process,” McKenna told the News Leader. “We’ll give courtesy to the commission.”

The News Leader did ask McKenna whether he thought the possibility exists that the Orchestra could adapt its original plans for a new venue in Payne Park — if the City Commission ends up agreeing to allow the Orchestra to use a portion of the park. McKenna declined to comment on that, too, saying, “When [the commissioners] conclude their process, it’ll be clear to us what the next steps are.”

This rendering shows how the new Sarasota Orchestra venue proposed in 2019 for Payne Park could look, close to U.S. 301. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Asked if he planned to be present for the March 1 meeting, McKenna told the News Leader he had another commitment for that evening.

When the News Leader then inquired as to whether McKenna expects any of the Orchestra’s board members to be present, he replied, “I don’t know.”

Opponents ready for a fight once again

Given the news about Mayor Brody’s plans to revive the Payne Park discussion, members of the Preserve Payne Park Coalition are gathering information and working on strategies, the News Leader learned.

Image from the Preserve Payne Park Coalition website

The organization posted a copy of Brody’s letter on its website. Next to the letter, under the heading What Now?, the website points out, “The concerns the 1,800 member Preserve Payne Park coalition raised regarding the Orchestra’s plan in 2019 still pertain:

  • “The Payne family gifted this land to the citizens of Sarasota for use as a ‘park, playground, and for no other purpose.’ The deed prevents giving an inch of the park to any purpose other than public park, and the Payne family descendants are on our side and have our backing.”

In 1925, C.N. Payne and Martha Payne conveyed to the city the property now known as Payne Park. In a May 7, 2019 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.

However, during the May 2019 City Commission discussion of the Orchestra’s proposal for the park, Kathleen Emerson Shumate of Barboursville, Va., a descendant of C.N. Payne — and Ralph Waldo Emerson, she pointed out — told the commissioners that she grew up in a family who held dear the views of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau regarding nature. Emerson “believed that the route for mankind to connect with the Divine is through the contemplation of the natural world,” Shumate said.

“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.”

Kathleen Emerson Summate makes a point to the commissioners on May 20, 2019. File photo

Under the What Now? heading on its website, the Payne Park Coalition also included the following statements:

  • “Not one blade of grass of the rich human, animal, and tree ecosystem of Sarasota’s ‘central park’ is fungible, and the park’s existing greenspace must be preserved [emphasis on the website].
  • “When the park area hosted a baseball stadium, the resulting gridlock was described as ‘the worst traffic jam in the state.’

Since it is unclear at this point exactly what is being envisioned, we think it is important that the City Commissioners hear from us to reiterate these concerns, and make it clear that what the Orchestra proposed in 2019 (taking 7 acres of park land, including mature trees and the duck pond) is, and remains, unacceptable to the citizens.”

Preserve Payne Park leaders are urging supporters to send emails to the city commissioners — — “and let them know that the plan, as presented in 2019, is not palatable.”

In response to the News Leader’s request for any additional comments, Preserve Payne Park President Kelly Franklin wrote in a Feb. 17 email, “Given the change in the make-up of the City Commission, the Preserve Payne Park coalition was not shocked to see the issue of the Sarasota Orchestra’s long-standing desire to have a dedicated concert hall resurface. We were surprised that it was Mayor Brody, one of the champions of preserving the park as a park, who took the initiative to put any portion of Payne Park back on the table.”

In November 2020, two new commissioners were elected to the board: Erik “E” Arroyo, who represents District 3; and Kyle Scott Battie, who represents District 1. Battie defeated former Commissioner Shaw, while Arroyo won the seat vacated by former Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie.

Franklin also pointed the News Leader to another statement on the website about the Orchestra issue: “If taking land from Payne Park really is the only viable option, then neighbors and park users must be part of the dialogue from the outset as to potentially workable solutions.”