Letter goes out with city logo but without City Commission having voted on it
A Dec. 17 letter sent to subscribers to city emails, written beneath the logos of both the City of Sarasota and the Van Wezel Foundation, cautioned recipients about the Keep the Van Wezel petition initiative on which The Sarasota News Leader reported in its Dec. 9 issue.
That effort has gained support from individuals who do not believe the city needs a major new performing arts venue that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Further, the Dec. 17 letter sought to refute assertions that advocates for preserving the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall have made. The letter stated, “We all agree that Sarasota needs and deserves a new, state-of-the-art performing arts center on The Bay Park and the current Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall cannot be upgraded to meet the needs of the ever-growing community’s demands or host modern Broadway shows.”
The letter did add, “At no time has the City, the Hall or the Foundation suggested that the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall be torn down.”
The email was signed by Mayor Kyle Battie; City Manager Marlon Brown; Jim Travers, chair of the Van Wezel Foundation; Cheryl Mendelson, CEO of the Foundation; and Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel.
The letter says the new venue will open in 2028, though the City Commission has not even approved a formal funding plan for it.
In fact, in April, two city commissioners voted against a partnership agreement with the Van Wezel Foundation that outlined general responsibilities of the city and the Foundation in regard to construction of a new performing arts hall. The Foundation representatives are due back before the Commission in the spring of 2023 to seek approval of a formal document that lays out more details, including the projected expense of the new facility.
Then-Mayor Erik Arroyo and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cited concerns on April 4 that the city might end up being responsible for a far higher expense than half of the maximum $350 million that leaders of the Foundation have cited for the Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC).
In response to a question that Ahearn-Koch asked during that meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier said that approval of the partnership agreement entailed “an obligation of good faith,” but since the Foundation had committed to crafting the formal implementation agreement with cost details, he believed the commissioners could insist on a smaller project if they felt the city would be unable to shoulder its expected share of the expense.
Arroyo stressed repeatedly that the estimate of $300 million to $350 million is “a lot of money,” adding, “We should be mindful of the worst-case scenario …”
Then-Commissioner Hagen Brody, who emphasized his support for the SPAC, did point to the fact that the facility could be far more expensive, based on the costs of other projects of a similar nature that have been constructed in recent years, including a venue in Miami-Dade County.
In response to a News Leader inquiry, Jan Thornburg, the city’s senior communications manager, explained in a Dec. 19 email that the full City Commission did not have to consent to the Dec. 17 letter, because it “was not sent on behalf of the City Commission, and City of Sarasota letterhead was not used.”
Kelly Franklin, one of the founders of the KeeptheVanWezel.com website, told the News Leader on Dec. 19 that 100 more people had signed the petition since the Dec. 17 email was distributed. The total number of persons who have signed the petition to keep the Van Wezel had risen above 2,300, she added in separate correspondence.
In a Nov. 8 email, available through the city’s public email folder, Mendelson, the CEO of the Foundation, sent City Manager Brown a link to the Keep the Van Wezel website.
Brown responded on Nov. 14: “This is so unfortunate that whoever did this is making it appear that this is coming from the Van Wezel (and City). This is so low and disingenuous and goes to show how individuals will do anything to scam/lure people to support their position by using the Van Wezel’s material (logo, etc.). I am sorry to say this but this is what our city, state and country has now become/is becoming in continuing to create divisiveness where your position alone matters at all costs and nothing else does. Thanks for sharing. Let’s stay positive and focused.”
Contradictions and clarifications
The Dec. 17 letter does include a number of statements that contradict information provided during City Commission discussions or in city documents.
Among them, as the News Leader reported on Dec. 9, a 2021 analysis of the Van Wezel, undertaken by a Sarasota engineering firm at city staff direction, said that the Van Wezel could be flood-proofed and updated to continue serving the public. Although that study was completed last year, City Manager Brown did not release it to the City Commission until Oct. 27, based on copies of emails that the News Leader obtained through a public records request.
As part of the summary of that study, Karins Engineering of Sarasota wrote that the Van Wezel shows no “evidence of structural members needing repairs. Continued maintenance, especially addressing water intrusion issues, will allow the building to remain stable into the future.” The report also estimated that the “probable cost of the floodproofing” of the facility would be $1,877,000, which “does not include replacement of equipment and finishes within the lower floor levels” or landscaping.
Brown explained to the city commissioners that he sought the analysis, which, he continued, “strictly looked at the possibility of adding seats and upgrades to make the [Van Wezel] more competitive for shows and what it would take to make the Hall flood proof regardless of the seating capacity.”
The Dec. 17 letter also makes the assertion that the tax-increment financing system (TIF) that the City Commission and the Sarasota County Commission approved in 2020 to pay for amenities at The Bay Park on the city’s 53 waterfront acres “is currently estimated to pay 80% of the public portion” of the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC).
On March 21, City Manager Brown pointed out to the commissioners that city leaders had committed to using $50 million out of the TIF revenue to cover the city’s share of the cost. A revenue bond, paid back by a surcharge on every ticket sold to a performance at the Van Wezel, while it still was operating, and then at the new venue, could be used to cover the rest of the city’s expense, he added.
Subsequently, an analysis undertaken by a city resident who is a CPA and who worked for years as the auditor for the Shubert Theatre on Broadway determined that such a surcharge likely would be more than $79 per each Van Wezel ticket.
The TIF funds are derived from annual increases in the value of property in the TIF district, which covers a wider area than just The Bay Park. The goal when the City and County commissions approved that district was to ensure that it encompassed nearby sites where new construction was anticipated in coming years, including the Quay Sarasota project.
The base year for the district is 2019. For every year that the district property rises in value, city and county staff members calculate how much tax revenue each local government would receive from that district, pegged to the lower of their millage rates, as city Finance Director Kelly Strickland has explained. Then the money is set aside in a trust fund for The Bay Park.
Each year, a board comprising two city commissioners, two county commissioners and former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, must vote on any requests for use of the TIF revenue for Bay Park amenities, as presented by the nonprofit Bay Park Conservancy. The Conservancy manages the park and raises private funding for those amenities, as well.
The organization of current commissioners and Thaxton formally is called the Bay Park Improvement Board.
Further, both the City Commission and the County Commission have to approve the funding requests, or the money cannot be released.
In October, the Conservancy won approval of the two commissions to use $48 million for the second phase of the Park.
Given double-digit increases in city and county property values this year — on top of significant upticks last year — the TIF District has been generating more money than city and county financial staff members had anticipated when the financing mechanism was approved.
In November 2020, before the county commissioners agreed to the TIF plans on a 3-2 vote, county financial management staff estimated that, at the end of 30 years, the county would have contributed a total of $92,130,317 to the trust fund. The city’s funding was projected to add up to $97,288,084.
In July, the county’s Office of Financial Management revised the estimates to reflect a total of $308,033,001 from both local governments by the 2049 fiscal year.
As a result of those updated figures, county commissioners emphasized the potential for ending the TIF mechanism after 15 years instead of 30. The interlocal agreement between the city and the county that created the district does allow for a shorter timeline for the TIF to remain in place if it produces sufficient revenue in less time.
The Broadway show debate
Another section of the Dec. 17 email, which references Broadway shows, is a topic that the KeeptheVanWezel.com website has addressed. As the News Leader also reported in its Dec. 9 article, a study that AMS Planning & Research Corp. of Fairfield, Conn., released in October 2015, found that “the touring industry works on regional blackouts, and we can’t solve the geographic market constraint of proximity to a metropolis by adding more seats.”
That study was commissioned by the Van Wezel Foundation.
The AMS analysis added, “Due to the size of its market, venue capacity, and contractual blackout clauses, the Straz Center [in Tampa] is often able to block [the Van Wezel] from obtaining certain artists or touring productions for its season.”
That report noted that the Straz “is the largest performing arts center in the Southeastern United States,” with 300,000 square feet and five separate theaters, “each with its own lobby and dressing rooms …”
For an example of its ability to secure top shows, in 2019, the Straz presented the first Broadway on Tour production of Hamilton in the Tampa Bay region.
Further the 2022 Broadway on Tour schedule — shown on KeeptheVanWezel.com — demonstrates that Fort Myers, which — like Sarasota — has a performing arts venue with less than 2,000 seats, can book some shows that Sarasota cannot, but that is only because Fort Myers is outside Tampa’s 90-mile blackout radius.
The Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall is a 1,874-seat facility, its website says. The Van Wezel has 1,741 seats.
The Dec. 17 letter from the City of Sarasota and the Van Wezel Foundation does say,“An independent economic impact study has been conducted and will be shared publicly in January. The new [SPAC] will create over 5,000 jobs during construction and after opening, the center is projected to have an annual $32 million dollar economic impact in the community.”
Additionally, the letter notes that the process through which the architect of the SPAC will be selected is underway, “using an open public procurement process with community engagement and collaboration. This process creates an exciting opportunity for the community to come together, learn more about the new center and provide input. On February 27, 2023, the City and Foundation are tentatively scheduled to host a town hall to answer questions and share information about the existing Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center. Details will be forthcoming,” the letter adds. (See the related article in this issue.)