Purple Ribbon Committee members named for two-year dive into future of Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

29 applicants detail wide range of expertise and experience

Although a few grunts and groans preceded the process, it ended up taking only about 32 minutes this week for the Sarasota city commissioners to appoint the seven members of the “Purple Ribbon Committee” that has been charged with making a recommendation on the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the city’s bayfront.

The commissioners had 29 applications to consider for the positions.

“We got an amazing number of well qualified people,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert emphasized. “I was blown away by it, I have to say.”

“I could have blindly pointed to seven people [on the list] and been happy with [the results],” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch added.

The members of the Purple Ribbon Committee are as follows:

  • Lee-En Chung — the seat for an individual with expertise in civil structural engineering. Alpert, who pointed out that Lee-En was the only individual to apply for that seat, immediately seconded Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch’s motion to appoint Lee-En to the committee. Commissioner Erik Arroyo added that Lee-En has “led numerous organizations around town; she is topnotch.”

The vote was unanimous.

In her application, Lee-En wrote that she “brings a generational understanding of the history of the Van Wezel and a common-sense engineering knowledge that will help lead the [committee] to the right strategic decision for the future of the facility.”

In her resume, Lee-En pointed out that she was “the first female in Florida to be both a certified General Contractor and registered Professional Engineer.” Included in her years of experience she noted was her service as the owner’s representative for Sarasota County in the $40-million redesign of Ed Smith Stadium and the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park, after the Baltimore Orioles agreed to relocate the team’s Spring Training operations to Sarasota County. Further, her resume says that she was the project manager on behalf of the city in the construction of the $15-million, four-level St. Armands Parking Garage, which opened in February 2019.

  • Robert Bunting — the seat for an individual with expertise in climate adaptation with experience, as well, in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain regulations.

Vice Mayor Alpert nominated him, and Commissioner Erik Arroyo seconded the nomination.

Commissioners Debbie Trice and Ahearn-Koch voted “No” on Bunting, while Mayor Kyle Battie supported Bunting’s appointment.

In his application, Bunting noted that he is a meteorologist and climate scientist who serves as the CEO of the Sarasota Climate Adaptation Center. “Our mission,” he explained, “is to help inform decision makers with the best peer review science on climate warming to help our community adapt to and mitigate the worst impacts of a warming climate including hurricanes, sea level rise, storm surge, harmful algae blooms like red tide, impacts on human health and biodiversity.” He also is a former “Lead Forecaster” for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he wrote; in that capacity, he worked with FEMA and the agency’s flood maps. Further, he wrote, he has served on boards of directors of performing arts organizations.

  • Charles Cosler — the seat for an individual with expertise in architecture and the design of performing arts centers, as well as reuse of large public structures.

Alpert also nominated Cosler, with Arroyo providing the second. Again, Ahearn-Koch and Trice voted “No.”

Cosler pointed out in his application that he “has 36 years’ experience” as president and design director of Cosler Theater Design LLC, “a full-service theater and architectural lighting design company …” He has consulted with leading architects on major national and international Projects, he added. “I believe my experience in restoration of historic theaters, knowledge of multi-use theaters for music and theater, building codes — especially for egress and access [—] and the special needs of road houses would be helpful to parse issues relating to the [ongoing] viability of the Van Wezel,” he wrote.

  • David Rovine — the seat for an individual with financial expertise in the field of the performing arts.

Alpert nominated Rovine, and Trice seconded it.

“I’ll third it,” Arroyo added, prompting laughter.

Ahearn-Koch was the only commissioner to vote “No” on Rovine’s appointment to that seat. She named Rick Fourie as her choice, explaining that Fourie “has been doing this his entire life. … I was very impressed with his background.”

In his resume, Fourie, who is the principal of his own company, Fourie Consultants, explained, “To date I’ve worked on over 300 different Performing Arts facilities in 40 US States, ten countries and four continents as Contractor, Cost Consultant, Director of Preconstruction, and Owners Project Manager and I’m well regarded in the Theatre Builder Community. I received a minor from the University of S. Florida in Performing Arts and [am] passionate about Performing Arts Construction.”

Fourie added, “Early in my career working as a roofing subcontractor, I worked on the estimating team to replace the Van Wezel roof. … During the years I’ve worked on several teams who did studies to improve the Van Wezel and even as a contractor I was brought in to look at window replacement. The Van Wezel has always represented a challenge in my career and a happy memory in my personal life — if economic data points that she can continue to serve her community in some capacity or if this is indeed the time for her to observe her final sunset, I have the necessary experience in both construction and performing arts economics to help make the right and perhaps difficult decision.”

Mayor Battie also talked of being “thoroughly impressed” with Fourie, though he joined the majority in supporting Rovine.

In his application, Rovine pointed to his experience in managing the day-to-day operations “of two different professional theatres identical to the Van Wezel.” Those were the 2,199-seat Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg and the 2,500-seat Genesee Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois. He also served as vice president in charge of Spring Training for the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, which included providing “oversight of all budgeting and financial forecasting.” During his tenure with the Orioles, he noted in his resume, he “engaged with multiple Arts groups in Sarasota to present their offerings at Ed Smith stadium.”

  • Morris “Marty” Hylton III — the seat for an individual with expertise in historical preservation. Alpert nominated Hylton, and Trice seconded it. Arroyo then nominated Tony Souza, who is chair of the Sarasota County Historic Preservation Board and vice chair of the city’s Historic Preservation Board.

For 15 years, Souza noted in his application, he chaired the New Bedford Historical Commission. He also served as the City of Sarasota’s historic preservation specialist for the rehabilitation of Belle Haven building on the Quay Sarasota property in downtown Sarasota.

Arroyo ended up being the only one to vote against Hylton.

Hylton wrote in his application that he has “nearly three decades of experience in architecture, historic preservation, and coastal resilience, [making him] uniquely qualified to contribute to the mission of the [committee]. In particular,” he continued, “my architecture and preservation applied research and practice have been largely focused on the conservation and adaptive use of modernist structures. … Most recently,” he added, “I served as the first [person working in] Historic Architecture for Climate Change for the National Park Service,” in which capacity he “helped develop strategies for adapting historic buildings and communities to be more resilient to flooding and other coastal hazards.”

The citizens’ seats

The commissioners’ spent the largest percentage of their time dedicated to the July 17 agenda item in debating who should win the two citizens’ seats. Melissa K. Gissinger and Selma Goker Wilson ended up with unanimous votes putting them in those chairs.

Gissinger is the owner and designer of the MK Collection in Sarasota and a licensed Realtor who works with Michael Saunders & Co. in Sarasota, she noted in her application. She also served a five-year term on the White House Historical Association, and she has been involved with the Bay Park Conservancy, which manages and raises private funds for the 53-acre park on the city’s waterfront, where a new performing arts center has been planned to replace the Van Wezel.

In her application, Gissinger pointed to her “years of experience with real estate projects, architectural work, distressed asset work and interior design …” Further, Gissinger wrote that she wants “to help ensure [the Van Wezel] becomes a viable, financially sustainable and cherished institution that serves our community.”

Goker Wilson noted in her application that she trained as an architect in the United Kingdom and graduated with a master’s degree in music and performance arts. She has practiced as an architect for more than 30 years, she added, “with a particular emphasis on performance arts buildings and public buildings. My work in four countries has been equally split between renovation and new construction. … I have specialized in the field of performance arts building because I care deeply about their capacity to serve artists in communicating their art at optimum level as well as their role in the cultural development of a city,” she added.

The fewest first

During their regular meeting on May 1, the city commissioners formally adopted a resolution that established the Purple Ribbon Committee.

In early March, they agreed to the number of members who would serve on the advisory board, as well as a set of criteria for the positions. The creation of the committee was one facet of the partnership agreement that the majority of the commissioners approved in April 2022 as the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation works on plans to construct a new, larger venue in The Bay Park.

On a 4-1 vote in early April of this year, the commissioners agreed to allow the Foundation until November 2024 to complete what has been called an “implementation agreement” in regard to that new performing arts facility. That document is expected to include details of the overall expense of the structure. The April 2022 agreement called for the city to cover half the cost, which Foundation leaders at that time estimated between $300 million and $350 million.

The Purple Ribbon Committee members will have two years to complete their work, the commissioners decided this spring.

After City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs introduced the Purple Ribbon Committee agenda item during the commission’s regular meeting on July 17, she suggested that the commissioners first tackle the far smaller number of applicants for the five seats with specific expertise. They agreed to that before comparing their picks for the two citizens’ seats.

Initially, Alpert said her nominees for the latter two seats were George Rasko and former Sarasota city Commissioner Ken Shelin.

In his application, Rasko explained that he is “a semi-retired Silicon Valley electrical engineer,” who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in that field from the University of Michigan. “I have participated in non-profit performing arts (mostly music and theater) for 50+ years,” he added, further noting that he “studied architectural acoustics.”

Arroyo initially nominated Michael Graham and Souza. However, since Souza had not specifically applied for one of the citizens’ seats, Arroyo ended up putting Gissinger in his No. 2 slot.

Graham noted in his application that he holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Ball State University, plus a master’s in international management, which he earned at the American Graduate School of International Management. He added that he has more than 40 years of experience “in city planning, economic development, and transportation planning …”

Alpert then announced that she had Goker Wilson’s name on her list.

Trice voiced support for Goker Wilson, as well. Her second name, she said, was Richard Rueger, who noted in his application that he has property insurance expertise. Rueger added that he worked at the FCCI Insurance Group in Sarasota from January 1989 until March of this year, when he retired as senior vice president for corporate underwriting.

Ahearn-Koch voiced support for Goker Wilson, too, as well as Gissinger. Battie named Shelin and Gissinger.

After City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out that he had heard three of the commissioners name Gissinger, Alpert said that Gissinger was on her “short list.”

The board members then voted unanimously for Gissinger to take one of the citizens’ seats.

Finally, Ahearn-Koch put up Goker Wilson’s name.

Trice said that Goker Wilson “made it clear [during Trice’s interview with her that Goker Wilson] does not want us to kill the [Van Wezel,” but to keep it as a public benefit.

Alpert responded with concern about that, saying she felt it would be better for all of the committee members to approach their responsibilities without having taken a position on the future of the building.

“She came across to me as very, very, very unbiased,” Ahearn-Koch emphasized of Goker Wilson. “She’s very fact-based; she’s very research-oriented.”

Then Trice clarified that she did not mean that Goker Wilson wanted to keep the Van Wezel as it is, only that Goker Wilson was focused on maintaining the structure as a public benefit, because of the city’s investment in it.

“OK,” Alpert responding, saying she understood from Trice’s comments that Goker Wilson would not want to see the Van Wezel privatized if it is to remain standing.

Finally, the vote was unanimous on naming Goker Wilson to the committee.

“That went faster [than I expected],” Alpert told her colleagues. “Wow.”