Backers of Sarasota’s bayfront cultural redevelopment initiative to tour Carmel, IN, performing arts facilities

Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 will lead a group on a tour this spring of the Indianapolis suburb, while one city commissioner is already focused on how the cost of a new entertainment venue soared there

The Carmel, IN, Center for the Performing Arts website offers a virtual tour. Image from the website
The Carmel, IN, Center for the Performing Arts website offers a virtual tour. Image from the website

Advocates for a re-imagined Sarasota cultural bayfront district plan to travel to Carmel, IN, later this spring to explore how a performing arts hub was built in a former cornfield in the Indianapolis suburb.

The expedition is envisioned as just one of a series of tours as the group explores how to embark on a potential public-private partnership that would drive an ambitious new cultural district anchored by one or more new performing arts facilities in Sarasota.

In regard to population, the city of Carmel is reasonably comparable to the city of Sarasota, where support has been building for the transformation of 42 acres of city-owned bayfront land. Carmel’s population in 2013 was 85,927, while Sarasota’s population was 53,326.

In addition, the Indiana city recently has been making a name for itself as the host of concerts and other performances by world-renowned groups. It also is home to the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. This cultural transition has become a model for Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, a coalition of arts and civic groups behind the cultural-district effort in Sarasota.

“It is a smaller community, and they have a great reputation, apparently, for the quality of their facilities,” Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, and a volunteer with Bayfront 20:20 told The Sarasota News Leader this week, referring to the Indiana city.

But the planned visit could also spur more intense questions back in Sarasota. City Commissioner Susan Chapman, for example, already has vowed to ensure a critical and thorough review is undertaken of how construction and operating costs ballooned when Carmel built its Center for Performing Arts.

“It looks like it is a beautiful place,” Chapman said of the venue, which opened in 2011 and is anchored by the 1,600-seat Palladium. “But the building expenses were much higher [than projected], and the real issue is the operating expenses are so high, the city keeps having to subsidize it to the tune of about $2 million a year … It is a budget-buster.”

The Palladium, a 151,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art concert hall, assuredly will be a stop on the Sarasota group’s tour. After years of planning, the Palladium opened on Jan. 29, 2011. One of three venues comprising the Center for the Performing Arts, it hosts concerts and performances by local groups as well as those of worldwide renown.

The Palladium is the focal point of the Carmel, IN, complex. Image from the Center for the Performing Arts website
The Palladium is the focal point of the Carmel, IN, complex. Image from the Center for the Performing Arts website

Bayfront 20:20 members, joined by civic leaders and some city officials, have already visited Dayton, OH; Kansas City; and Orlando. After Carmel, Dallas, Texas, is the next locale listed under upcoming trips for the group. The Carmel trip will likely take place in May or June, Haley said.

The Bayfront 20:20 group does not plan to use Carmel — or any other single community — as the model for its specific goals or processes, Haley told the News Leader. Instead, it hopes to learn “those lessons” that both politicians and cultural facility backers took from their experiences.

That could include what they “would do differently,” Haley added.

One lesson learned in Kansas City, for example, Haley said, resulted from the Sarasota group’s tour of the redeveloped historic train station, Union Station, which houses a museum and other public attractions. She noted that the project entailed a complicated public-private partnership. “They had some unrealistic expectations” when it came to anticipated revenue, Haley said. “We talked about the importance of being very sure we know what the numbers are [when planning facilities in Sarasota] and not being overly rosy.”

Virginia Haley. File photo
Virginia Haley. File photo

“In each of these instances,” she continued, “it is not so much the physical building, but what the communities went through to get there: the path they took, what they would do differently.”

Several representatives of the Sarasota Orchestra especially want to tour the performing arts facility in Carmel that is home to that city’s Symphony Orchestra — a respected symphony in a smaller community, she pointed out.

Soaring Costs

An Indianapolis Star examination found that while the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel gets rave reviews from residents, questions linger about the venue’s financial situation.

Over a period of six years, the cost of building the center soared, according to the Indianapolis Star article. “Somewhere between the 2005 sales pitch and its 2011 opening, the $80 million facility became a $175 million one,” the April 2014 article says. “A $309,000 worst-case scenario government subsidy turned into more than $2 million a year in taxpayer assistance,” the article added.

City Commissioner Chapman — who has asked questions about the cost of new performing arts amenities in Sarasota and how much will be funded by taxpayer dollars — wants to ensure Carmel’s situation is viewed with a critical eye.

“I would like to talk to different people, the people at the city who are actually having to pay [the operating expenses],” she told the News Leader.

Chapman’s goal, she says, is to make certain the City of Sarasota does not end up in a similar venture with ballooning construction costs and excessive operating expenses.

“The bottom line is I want to make sure we can afford it,” said Chapman, who pointed out that she does support the local arts. Nonetheless, she added, even putting up a portion of $500 million has the potential to bankrupt the city of Sarasota.

City Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo
City Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo

Estimates for renovating the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota or replacing it with a new structure range from $150 million to $520 million. A study commissioned by the Van Wezel staff, which was recently completed by AMS Planning & Research, included those figures.

As discussed during a Feb. 22 City Commission workshop, an independent planning organization will be considering proposals that will best meet the community’s needs. It is unclear at this point what scale of facility might be required to serve the Van Wezel and the Sarasota Orchestra, as well as other arts groups, or whether creating multiple venues might be the best approach.

Chapman wrote an email to City Manager Tom Barwin on Feb. 23 — the morning after the workshop — expressing the desire to travel to the Indianapolis suburb. Barwin replied that he believed it would be possible to arrange that, and he asked if she wanted to accompany the Bayfront 20:20 group.

“Absolutely not, I would want to go independently,” Chapman responded in an email later the same day. “I think it is important to learn the actual experience of the city. I would want to look at the project from the point of view of city government,” she added. “The 20:20 group is going with a very positive mind set. I would pursue a more objective perspective.”

Chapman told the News Leader that while she would still like to go on a separate trip to Carmel, she is also considering doing her research over the phone. She has already called the reporter who wrote the April 2014 article in the Indianapolis Star. As of press time, she had not heard back from the person.

The cost to taxpayers

Costs to upgrade or replace the Van Wezel in Sarasota range up to $520 million. File photo
Costs to upgrade or replace the Van Wezel in Sarasota range up to $520 million. File photo

During the “Remarks of Commissioners” portion of the Monday, March 7, City Commission meeting, Chapman also called on city finance staff to undertake an analysis of the tax impact for different bond amounts that might be pegged to the planned bayfront cultural district.

For example, she asked, what would a $300-million bond referendum entail for taxpayers?

During the Feb. 22 workshop, she questioned how the consulting firm came up with its $150-million to $520-million range, whether the city could afford the expense, whether the city commissioners would be asked to tap into the city’s bonding capacity and whether the Van Wezel would be demolished.

The answer to the last question was “No,” replied representatives of the Bayfront 20:20 group. The Van Wezel will be re-purposed, or it will be used in another capacity, if a new facility, or facilities, are built.

Answers to many of the other questions remain to be determined.