On 4-1 vote, Sarasota city commissioners approve new engagement with Sarasota Orchestra on relocation, including potential for Payne Park venue

Majority of 17 speakers oppose the revival of idea that board members defeated in May 2019

The City Commission sits in session on March 1, with Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch participating remotely, and speaker Sami Leigh Scott shown in a Zoom window next to Ahearn-Koch. News Leader image

On May 20, 2019, Kathleen Emerson Shumate of Barboursville, Va., a descendant of the family that deeded the land for Payne Park to the City of Sarasota, was among more than 70 speakers to appear before the City Commission to decry a proposal for the Sarasota Orchestra to relocate to a new venue in that park.

Late on the night of March 1, Shumate addressed the commissioners once again, speaking this time via Zoom.

“I’m disappointed to be here,” she said.

Her reason for speaking was an agenda item Mayor Hagen Brody had requested for that City Commission session. It called for a new discussion about the potential of using land in or around Payne Park for a Sarasota Orchestra performing arts hall.

Reiterating her 2019 comments about being a descendant of both the Payne family and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Shumate pointed out, “Calvin Payne thought that he had completely covered it when he donated this land to the City of Sarasota by being so specific in the will that no one could alter [the park] …”

Shumate added, “My family does not agree with [Brody’s proposal], and we will do whatever we have to do. … I just want the Orchestra to have a place that doesn’t include Payne Park.”

“During the pandemic,” she continued, “people need the greenspace. … They have to get out of their homes in a way that they don’t go crazy … I think taking away any part of Payne Park would be devastating to the majority of the citizens of Sarasota, the majority.”

Of the 17 speakers who offered public comments on the issue during the March 1 commission meeting, only three supported the idea of re-examining possibilities for the Orchestra to make its new home in the park.

‘They don’t have two more years to waste’

Mayor Hagen Brody offers comments on March 1. News Leader image

Following the speakers’ remarks, Mayor Brody stressed, “We’re not talking about any concept whatsoever tonight.” Instead, he continued, his proposal called for re-engagement with representatives of the Sarasota Orchestra, which could lead to a concept “that could work at Payne Park. … My hope is that this can begin more of a community discussion and a partnership.”

All over the world, Brody pointed out, arts venues make parks better.

Just before 11 p.m. on March 1, after close to two-and-a-half hours of discussion and the public comments, the commissioners voted 4-1 to, as Brody put it, “explore any option in the city, including in and around Payne Park” for a new Sarasota Orchestra venue.

Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo made the motion, and Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie seconded it.

“I can’t say that I’m in support of us eliminating park space,” Arroyo said. However, he continued, as he understood Brody’s reasoning for bringing the issue back up, the goal is to keep the Orchestra in the city, “and there are so many locations [that could work].”

Earlier, Battie told his colleagues, “I’m in no way, shape, form or fashion taking away greenspace, period, ever. I think we build too much, anyway. Every patch of green, we’ve got to build on it.”

However, Battie did note that he had seen a concept that showed how a new venue for the Orchestra could be created in the vicinity of the park without the necessity of relocating any park amenities. (In 2019, the Sarasota Orchestra design presented to the commissioners called for moving tennis courts to accommodate the performing arts hall.)

If a venue could be constructed near the Sarasota County public parking garage, which stands at the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and School Avenue, Battie added, he would not necessarily be opposed to that.

Brody told his colleagues that they needed “to recognize that the Orchestra has publicly ruled out any other spot in the city. … I don’t want to sound like this is the last resort,” he added, referring to Payne Park, “but they’ve made it pretty clear that it is.”

Vice Mayor Arroyo talked of his desire to see the Orchestra relocate to the Sarasota County Fairgrounds, south of Fruitville Road and east of Tuttle Avenue. In fact, he said, “I have a meeting next Monday with all the parties [to discuss that potential]. We just haven’t gotten everybody in the same room to discuss this in a long time. … I’m not going to give up hope.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues she could not support the motion Brody proposed that night. She is in favor of new discussions with leaders of the Orchestra, she said, as “None of us wants … to see them leave the city.” Nonetheless, she continued, “I do not have an interest in having another discussion about Payne Park proper.”

If the motion had omitted that possibility, she added, she could have supported it.

This is a rendering of the performing arts venue the Sarasota Orchestra proposed in Payne Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Commissioner Liz Alpert, who argued in 2019 for the Payne Park proposal, offered numerous rebuttals to comments speakers made that night in opposition to the idea.

After conferring with City Manager Marlon Brown about the figure, she noted that the Orchestra’s facilities on the Sarasota bayfront comprise about 4 acres. (Holley Hall, where the Orchestra’s operations are based, is located just east of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.)

The Orchestra’s 2019 concept called for 7 acres of Payne Park, she noted. “It’s almost close to an even swap, in terms of greenspace.”

Further, Alpert pointed out, if the Orchestra were to construct a new concert hall within The Bay Park planned on the city’s 53 downtown waterfront acres, that building would join a facility that will replace the Van Wezel, plus other amenities. If numerous events were taking place in that park at the same time, she added, “[Traffic] would be a nightmare.”

Alpert also disputed “the notion that Payne Park is the only greenspace in the city where people can go.” She reeled off names of a number of city facilities in the downtown area, including Bayfront Park, Five Points Park and Pineapple Park.

The Orchestra’s new hall would take up “a small portion” of Payne Park, which comprises approximately 36 acres, she stressed. “It would not take away from anybody’s use of the park.”

As for the restrictions that Shumate, the Payne family descendant, and other speakers referenced regarding the donation of the land for Payne Park: Alpert maintained that the deed allows “kindred uses,” and that could be construed to include a museum or a concert hall. “Many, many parks around the country have that kindred use.”

Moreover, Alpert told her colleagues, “When the [Payne Park] concept was first presented to the City Commission two years ago, every commissioner loved it, loved it. … Then, suddenly, there was pushback … and four commissioners said, ‘We’re backing down.’”

Brody was one of those four who voted against the Orchestra’s request. Only Alpert supported it in the wake of that May 2019 discussion, with hundreds of city residents in the Commission Chambers. Many of those Payne Park advocates wore yellow shirts to identify their stance on the issue.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch shows her colleagues a binder containing copies of all the emails the commissioners received before the May 2019 board discussion. News Leader image

On March 1, Alpert also emphasized that she had received many comments from the public in support of a Payne Park venue for the Orchestra. “I think we put everything on the table and allow city staff to work with the Orchestra. … Let’s not demonize them.”

Alpert noted that she has been talking with leaders of the Sarasota Orchestra since the May 2019 meeting. “They don’t have two more years to waste to find a [new] location.”

Other views

Two of the March 1 speakers were leaders of the Preserve Payne Park Coalition, which was organized in 2019 to fight the use of any area of the park for the new Orchestra venue.

The president of the organization, Kelly Franklin, said she understood Mayor Brody’s intention was to open a dialogue that would lead to the Orchestra’s staying within the city limits. “We support the spirit of Mayor Brody’s gesture,” she added.

No one wants to see Sarasota Orchestra decamp to Lakewood Ranch, for example, Franklin pointed out. However, if the Orchestra leaders chose to do that, she continued, “There’s nothing preventing the city from nurturing a new orchestra.”

“More suitable locations exist” for the Orchestra’s relocation within the city, she added. Like Arroyo, she cited the fairgrounds, and she also noted the potential for a venue in the area of The Ringling Museum of Art.

A red balloon marks the Sarasota Orchestra’s Holley Hall home in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

Yet another option, Franklin noted, could be an abandoned or under-utilized mall, such as the former Southgate Mall on Siesta Drive, which is known as the Crossings at Siesta Key.

Franklin also pointed out, “The 7 acres [the Orchestra wanted in 2019 [in Payne Park] is three times more land than the 4,500-seat Carnegie Hall complex in New York …”

Sami Leigh Scott, vice president of Preserve Payne Park, stressed that the organization “is not against the Orchestra. We are for a park which serves as the city’s Central park and town square.”

“People of all hues and backgrounds” come together in Payne Park, Scott noted, so they can “‘to live in sunshine and drink the wild air.’” She was quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In a still from a Preserve Payne Park Coalition video, a child enjoys the equipment in the park’s circus-themed playground area. Image from the Preserve Payne Park website

Chris Bales, another member of Preserve Payne Park, referenced what she called “edifice complex,” adding that it is a “budget-busting illness”: Performing arts groups routinely want new facilities, even though those venues end up empty much of the time.

Orchestras in the United States have been facing difficulties for the past several years, she continued, “because they have a diminishing audience base,” and they have to compete with other organizations for funds to stay in operation.

City taxpayers are going to be investing hundreds of millions of dollars in The Bay Park, Bales pointed out; that site could accommodate a dedicated concert space.

This is a rendering of the master plan for The Bay Park, shown to the County Commission on Jan. 15, 2020. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Denise Spalsbury told the commissioners that she is “a big supporter of the Orchestra … but I also play tennis.”

After the May 2019 vote, she continued, Commissioner Alpert and others made numerous efforts to overturn the decision. “So [commissioners] didn’t take [Payne Park] off the table; they were actively pursuing it.”

Among Alpert’s actions, Spalsbury said, was an attempt to convince Shumate, the Payne family descendant, to change her stance on what the Payne Park deed allows.

“Nothing happened until the [November 2020] elections,” Spalsbury added. “We got new commissioners.”

Among the three supporters of allowing the Orchestra to relocate to Payne Park, Roger Barry, a retired professor of urban planning with a specialty in economic development, talked of how the pandemic has harmed downtown Sarasota. The City Commission needs to do all it can, he said, to help the local economy, including keeping the Orchestra in the city.

“A major symphony orchestra is the key to a city’s cultural strengths,” another supporter, Ron Weintraub, pointed out. “I beg you,” he told the commissioners, to keep the Orchestra in the city.