Sarasota city manager says he is continuing to work with Sarasota Orchestra leaders on potential city sites for a new concert hall

Prominent downtown property owner proposes variation on Orchestra’s Payne Park plan

(Editor’s note: This article was updated on the afternoon of June 8 to correct information about the City Commission vote on May 20. Only Mayor Liz Alpert favored allowing the Sarasota Orchestra to relocate to Payne Park.)

Holley Hall in Sarasota is a venue Sarasota Orchestra leases from the City of Sarasota. Image from the Sarasota Orchestra website

Since the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 on May 20 to ask that the Sarasota Orchestra continue looking for a new venue in the city, City Manager Tom Barwin has been in almost daily conversations with Orchestra leaders, Barwin reported to the board members during their June 3 regular meeting.

Earlier in the session, a prominent Sarasota property owner — Dr. Mark Kauffman — offered some ideas to support that initiative.

Nonetheless, as laid out in a May 30 letter to Mayor Liz Alpert, David Steves, chair of the Orchestra’s board of directors, says the Orchestra is focused on “site exploration for a new music center beyond the Sarasota City limits.”

In response to Steves’ news, the city issued a May 31 press release with the following quote from Alpert: “If the orchestra ultimately chooses to leave its current facility at the Bayfront, we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to continue this strong, longstanding and productive relationship. City Manager Tom Barwin and his staff will be collaborating closely with the orchestra to advance our collective futures in hopes of coming up with even better options within the City limits than have already been considered.”

During their May 20 meeting, the commissioners heard from more than 70 people about the Orchestra’s proposal for a new venue in Payne Park; the vast majority of speakers decried the plan.

Only Alpert championed the Sarasota Orchestra’s vision for the new venue near U.S. 301 which — Orchestra leaders told the commissioners — could have seen patrons utilizing the Sarasota County parking garage at the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and School Avenue.

The May 30 letter to Alpert from Steves pointed out that the Orchestra unveiled its proposal for the Payne Park location in a special commission meeting on Feb. 26. If the Orchestra had won city approval for that plan, Steves continued, it would have achieved “a mutual goal of retaining one of the City’s longstanding cultural organizations in the City of Sarasota.”

Steves added that with its May 20 vote, the commission “determined that the Orchestra vision was not viable despite a very compelling rationale and a supportive legal opinion.”

The latter was a reference to research City Attorney Robert Fournier had undertaken in advance of the meeting. Fournier wrote in a memo to the commissioners that he believed he could justify the new venue in the park, in spite of restrictions in the deed when the Payne Park property was sold to the city in 1925.

This graphic presented by the Sarasota Orchestra in February shows how the tennis courts in Payne Park could be relocated to make room for a new performing arts hall. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

According to a 2003 history of the park prepared for the city, C.N. Payne and his wife, Martha E. Payne, of Titusville, Penn., sold a total of 60 acres — including the present-day Payne Park property — to the city and county early in the 20th century. Ultimately, the history says, the city ended up with 40 acres, with the deed specifying the land was to be used for “public park purposes.”

The May 30 letter from Steves also reiterated “four critical success factors central to [the Orchestra’s] facility planning effort”:

  • Urgency.
  • Artistic and educational integrity.
  • Philanthropic considerations.
  • Business and economic viability.

Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the Orchestra, explained to the City Commission in June 2018 and again on Feb. 26 that the organization has been contending with increasingly difficult scheduling constraints associated with sharing venues for its performances in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

And while he stressed support for The Bay, a project designed to turn 53 city-owned bayfront acres into a public park and center of arts and cultural activities, he noted that the build-out of that project could take up to 20 years.

Additionally, McKenna has explained that major supporters of the Orchestra have grown concerned about the effects of sea level rise on the bayfront home and have urged the organization to find higher ground for a new home. Payne Park had sufficient elevation to calm their concerns, McKenna told the commissioners.

A variation on an idea

A variation on the Payne Park proposal still could work, Dr. Kauffman, a long-time member of the city’s Downtown Improvement District board of directors, told the commissioners on June 3 during the opening period for public comments.

If he were one of them, he said, “I would be jumping on the table, demanding that [the new Sarasota Orchestra performing arts hall] be built in our downtown.”

He pointed out that the city owns almost 2 acres along U.S. 301, which it purchased years ago in an effort “to woo the [Boston] Red Sox” to Sarasota for Spring Training. That land, he said, “lays bare.”

An aerial map shows the property at 423 S. Washington Blvd. (outlined in red) adjacent to the parcel at 311 S. Washington Blvd., both of which the city owns. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

Thus, Kauffman continued, six or seven tennis courts could be relocated to that site from Payne Park, and they could be constructed contiguous to the area where the Sarasota Orchestra proposed new courts be built to replace those where its proposed venue would stand.

The 2 acres on U.S. 301 are not part of Payne Park, Kauffman noted, but they could be added to it, thereby reducing the impact of the Orchestra on the park’s total acreage.

Moreover, Kauffman said, the Orchestra would be vacating the 3 acres it uses on the city’s bayfront, so the total loss of city greenspace would be 2 acres instead of 7.

Further, he told the board, Laurel Street “could easily be vacated,” which would mean an extra one-third of an acre for the park, which could be the site of a new tennis locker room.

This aerial view of a portion of Payne Park shows a segment of Laurel Street. Image from Google Maps

“Declining an opportunity to provide the Orchestra the ability to avoid expenditure for purchasing land and constructing a garage facility, at zero cost to the city, just seems to strain credulity,” Kauffman said.

He urged the commissioners to take up the issue again, especially as they were making a decision close to 1 a.m. on May 21. The commissioners, he said, were “understandably exhausted from 13 hours of meetings starting in the afternoon [of May 20].”

It is not typical for a commissioner or a city staff member to respond to remarks people make during the public comment periods of the meetings. In keeping with that protocol, no one mentioned Kauffman’s proposal after he made it on June 3.