Membership criteria set for ‘Purple Ribbon Committee’ to focus on future of Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

Five of seven persons to have specific expertise relevant to discussions

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota city commissioners approved a “Purple Ribbon Committee” comprising five individuals with specific professional expertise, plus two city residents, to consider how the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall could be used in the future.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert made the motion at the end of nearly 37 minutes of discussion during the board members’ regular meeting on March 6, and Commissioner Erik Arroyo seconded it.

City Manager Marlon Brown reminded the commissioners early on that they had had two prior discussions about the make-up of the committee. The last one — conducted during a Jan. 30 workshop — focused on five types of professionals whose expertise would be desirable on the committee. Brown characterized them as individuals “with enough knowledge to ask the right questions.”

They are as follows:

  • An architect with expertise in performing arts venues and the construction of large public buildings.
  • A person with expertise in historical preservation. “That is key,” Brown said, because of the desire for the Van Wezel “to maintain some level of historical integrity.”
  • An individual with expertise in civil and structural engineering, given the numerous questions that have been asked in the community about whether the Van Wezel indeed can be repurposed, if a new performing arts center is constructed, as proposed.
  • A person with financial expertise, though not necessarily a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), who also has experience with the operations of performing arts centers.
  • An individual with expertise in climate change. Because the Van Wezel stand on the shore of Sarasota Bay, Brown pointed out, it “is one of our most vulnerable facilities.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch suggested naming two city residents to the committee.

During the discussion, the board members also agreed that the members of the Purple Ribbon Committee will be appointed by votes of a majority of the commissioners.

Further, Brown reminded the commissioners that Sarasota attorney Dan Bailey, who was a member of the committee years ago that discussed the future of the historic, 1920s Sarasota High School on North Tamiami Trail near downtown Sarasota, had recommended that a facilitator be appointed to help guide the committee’s discussions. Brown has “a couple of names in mind,” he added. They are persons who have served in such roles in the past, he indicated, especially in situations during which complex, potentially controversial issues have been addressed. Brown said that, in the future, he likely will offer the board members options for a facilitator, for their consideration.

As the commissioners debated the make-up of the committee, Commissioner Debbie Trice, who was elected to the board in November 2022, told her colleagues that she “was thinking more along the lines of nine [members of the Purple Ribbon Committee].” Moreover, she continued, she felt that four additional persons, who would represent the community, should join the professional members. Trice added that she had been thinking of past elected officials in the city or current or past leaders of “significant organizations.”

Further, she proposed that the commissioners empower the committee members to consider the “operating financials” of the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC), if the committee members agree that the Van Wezel should be repurposed.

“I don’t want to see the majority of this committee being just citizens,” Vice Mayor Alpert responded. “We need experts, not people who have their opinion or their agenda or whatever it is they’re looking to do.” She remained firm on limiting the number of individuals to seven.

Alpert also opposed the idea of directing the members to consider the SPAC’s financials.

Then Trice said that Alpert’s comments reminded her that the SPAC Foundation is scheduled this spring to present the commissioners a proposed implementation agreement for the new performing arts center. That would include financial projections, Trice added. Therefore, she said, the Purple Ribbon Committee members will have access to that document while they are pursuing their deliberations.

Brown pointed out that he expects representatives of the SPAC Foundation to appear before the commissioners later this month to request an extension for delivery of the SPAC implementation agreement to them.

Trice also explained that the reason she had suggested including past city officials among the members is because of their experience in regard to the needs of the community. They “wouldn’t necessarily have preconceived notions,” she said.

Ahearn-Koch responded, “I think we should keep the group … smaller … I think seven is a really good working number.”

When Vice Mayor Alpert asked at one point how much time the members should be accorded to handle their work and provide a report to the City Commission, Brown proposed 12 to 18 months.

Ownership and residential requirements 

Yet another question that Ahearn-Koch raised on March 6 was whether the city would continue to own the Van Wezel.

Brown told her that that is the basis on which he is operating, just as the Sarasota School Board retains ownership of the historic Sarasota High School structure and leases it to the Ringling College of Art + Design as a contemporary art museum.

Nonetheless, Brown added, if the commissioners want to ensure that the city retains ownership of the Van Wezel, that could be included in the resolution regarding the appointment of the committee members.

Yet another issue that Ahearn-Koch raised was the clause of the April 4 partnership agreement between the city and the Foundation regarding the fact that the Van Wezel would not be able to compete with the new SPAC in terms of types of productions it could host.

She did not want the Purple Ribbon Committee to be restricted in its discussions on that point, she added.

In the development of the implementation agreement with the Foundation, Brown told her, language could be included to provide more clarity on that issue. He would not put that much emphasis on the non-compete clause in the April 2022 document, in regard to the committee’s discussions, Brown said.

Ahearn-Koch also was the commissioner who asked that the name of the committee be modified to say “Purple Ribbon” instead of “Blue Ribbon,” since the Van Wezel is purple.

“We can do that,” Brown responded, as laughter ensued among the other board members.

On one further point, Ahearn-Koch asked for certainty that the two citizen members of the group be city residents.

Vice Mayor Alpert replied that that was her intent.

Then Ahearn-Koch asked whether Alpert envisioned that the five members with expertise be city residents.

Alpert said she did not think that was necessary, though it would be “all the better if they are.” Still, she told Ahearn-Koch, “I don’t think I want to limit [them to being city residents].”

Ahearn-Koch then asked whether the commissioners could give more weight to an applicant who at least lives in the county.

“I see what you’re saying,” Alpert replied. Nonetheless, if someone from outside the county was qualified to serve on the committee and wanted to be a member, Alpert said she did not want to rule out that person.

Many performing arts centers have been constructed across the country, Alpert continued. “I want to make sure we have the experts, and they all might be here in Sarasota County, but I don’t know that.”

Ahearn-Koch responded that she would find it difficult to appoint someone to the committee if the individual lives outside the county.

Alpert told Ahearn-Koch that she “could personally still give more weight to somebody who’s local, which probably all of us would.”

“I don’t want to limit [committee membership based on where applicants live],” Mayor Kyle Battie said. The goal, he reminded his colleagues, is to get “as much valuable input” as possible from experts. “Why not give us the opportunity to get the best that we can,” Battie added.

“I hear exactly what you all are saying,” Ahearn-Koch responded. Nonetheless, she said, she hoped all of the commissioners would consider local residents ahead of persons living outside the county, as the individuals living in this area would have a better understanding of the issues revolving around the Van Wezel’s future.

Trice then interjected, “I am assuming that people who serve on this committee will be doing it without remuneration.”
“Yes,” Ahearn-Koch replied.

In that case, Trice said, a person who lives out of state is not likely to apply for an appointment to the committee.

“Thank you,” Alpert told Trice.

When Battie called for the vote, Alpert’s motion passed 5-0.

City Attorney Robert Fournier will draw up a resolution laying out the provisions the commissioners had discussed for the committee and bring it back to them for review, Brown indicated.