Now that the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall isn’t losing money, the Sarasota City Commission is not keen on turning over its day-to-day operations to the Van Wezel Foundation.
In January, a brief update on exploratory discussions held between city staff and the Van Wezel Foundation turned into a tense discussion that left both sides perturbed.
After a news release was issued in December explaining that the city and the foundation were in discussions to determine if the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall should continue to be a city-run department or not, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo requested the commission discuss the topic.
Former City Manager Bob Bartolotta explained that two years ago, the commission made it a priority of city staff to review Van Wezel operations options after the hall had a $1.2 million shortfall.
That prompted Bartolotta and city staff to begin discussions on the following future options:
• Continue to operate the Van Wezel as a city department.
• Explore a private management contracts for operation similar to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, in Fort Myers, and the Mahaffey Theatre, in St. Petersburg. Under this alternative, a private company manages the operation with a management fee paid by the city.
• Create a new non-profit organization to manage both the day-to-day operations and the long-term fundraising.
• Consolidate the operation of the Van Wezel Hall with the Van Wezel Foundation under a long-term lease arrangement, whereby the non-profit entity would carry the authority and responsibility for governance, operations, all expenses and fundraising.
In December, Bartolotta explained that the hall just ended the last fiscal year with a $400,000 profit and asked commissioners if they wanted to continue discussions with the Van Wezel Foundation or not.
The comments surprised Van Wezel Foundation Chairman Mark Famiglio, who explained that the foundation had spent hundreds of hours and $40,000 analyzing the finances of the hall, making a determination the foundation would support any collaboration so the community could utilize the non-profit status of the foundation to promote and expand operations of the hall.
The foundation, which has been in existence for 20 years and provided $9 million toward the hall and its operations, has told city staff it could raise $15 million toward future operations if an agreement was reached to have more control over hall operations.
But two months later, discussions still appear to be stalled.
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said discussions with the foundation are ongoing and an item will be brought back for the commission to discuss at a future regular meeting.
“A status update will be presented to see if there’s an interest by commissioners to continue discussions,” Brown said.
Famiglio, though, isn’t hopeful an agreement will be reached.
“The current appetite of the commission is directed toward more immediate issues that are demanding their attention,” Famiglio said. “We’ve had continuing conversations and it appears that due to many factors, not the least of which is the transition in city management, we won’t get deep into the issue for many months.”