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Sarasota Tuesday, May 24, 2022 1 month ago

City rejects The Players' plan to lease, manage Municipal Auditorium

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Its theater plans at Lakewood Ranch terminated, The Players Centre for Performing Arts is still looking for a permanent home after city commissioners vote to consider more options.
by: Andrew Warfield Staff Writer

With plans for its new theater in Lakewood Ranch recently scrapped, The Players Centre for Performing Arts is still in search of a permanent home.

After last week’s public hearing before the Sarasota City Commission on a proposed lease agreement for Municipal Auditorium, the nearly century-old theater group appears no closer to a solution.

In late March, Lakewood Ranch parent company Schroeder-Manatee Ranch announced it had terminated its agreement with The Players to build a performing arts center in Waterside Place. That came after The Players informed Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty, a subsidiary of SMR, that it was it was in negotiations with the city about moving its operations to the Municipal Auditorium

Now, failing to gain support from commissioners for that move, The Players is still a seeking a permanent location.

The organization is holding performances in a venue in a shopping center at 3501 S. Tamiami Trail, where it moved following the sale and demolition of its prior home at 838 N. Tamiami Trail.

The Players CEO William Skaggs proposed a 30-year lease at $100 a year, and in return would invest $6 million in new retractable seating and other upgrades. It would also take over management of the facility, removing an annual expense of $72,000 from the city’s books.

That figure doesn’t cover the totality of the costs associated with the property: Even as the city projects an increase of more than $190,000 in rental revenue at the Municipal Auditorium and Bayfront Community Center in fiscal year 2022, the budget still anticipates the facilities will have an operating deficit of $266,649.

That proposal was met with a mix of support and objection.

Paul Ratner, general manager of the Sarasota Film Festival said it, too, is adequately qualified to operate the facility. But the death blow to the deal — Commissioner Hagen Brody’s motion to move forward with the agreement was not seconded — was perhaps delivered by Bay Park Conservancy CEO Bill Waddill, who presented commissioners with copy of an amended agreement with the city that specified future negotiations for a plan to transition programming of the facility to his organization.

Ceding programming to The Players via the lease proposal would violate that agreement, Waddill said.

“We support the idea of keeping The Players downtown and support the idea of The Players on the site,” Waddill said. “We just are not convinced that they are the right management partner for the facility, and we're recommending that we separate management of the facility from the users of the facility.”

A.G. Lafley, CEO and founding member of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, urged commissioners to take a longer-range view of the auditorium.

“The Municipal Auditorium is arguably the most important existing park building on the 53-acre site, the only indoor venue with the size and versatility to support park activities, programs and events,” Lafley said. “Every public park in America, particularly one the size, scale and scope of The Bay, needs a viable indoor facility to accommodate climate and weather realities. In Sarasota, it rains more than 100 days a year. Ninety days every year see temperatures of 90 or above, and high humidity is the norm from at least June through September.

“At these times the Bay Park Conservancy needs an option to move activities indoors. The Municipal Auditorium is the only real option.”

 

A deal’s a deal

When he made his motion, Brody told commissioners that if The Players was to invest $6 million in Municipal Auditorium, it would need to manage it. Other commissioners voiced concerns that other regular uses of the facility could be squeezed out by the deal.

After Brody’s motion failed without support, Commissioner Liz Alpert quickly motioned to keep the conversation going between all parties in search of a working solution.

“I think (The Players) is a really good use of the Municipal Auditorium, but I also am concerned about the agreement we have with the Bay Park Conservancy that anticipated that they would manage the facility,” Alpert said.

“If there's a way for all of them to get together and come up with a solution that allows us and The Players to go forward as well as the film festival and keep it more flexible, let’s see if we can't have them all meet together with staff and figure out a way to make it workable for everybody.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch added the agreement with the Bay Park Conservancy trumps all other matters after she seconded Alpert’s motion.

“This is a partnership agreement. The words are here. When we talk about these agreements that we we make, we have to be very, very careful. The devil’s in the detail and the detail is right there,” Ahearn-Koch said. “It does say the city and the BPC will propose separately a plan for the transitioning and programming of the Municipal Auditorium. This speaks to our integrity when we make these agreements. Either we stick to them or we don’t.”

In colorful metaphoric fashion, Vice Mayor Kyle Battie said the city shouldn’t engage in flirtation with another suitor while already wearing a promise ring.

“Make no mistake The Players is almost out of here,” Battie said. “They were going to be out in Lakewood Ranch, and I keep that in the back of my brain. But when we start talking about commitment, it's almost as though you couldn't get that girlfriend, so you you took her friend. You really didn't want her but you took her anyway.”

Regardless of which suitor it decides to date, before the vote Mayor Erik Arroyo said the city needs to make certain the relationship is mutually beneficial.

“I just hope that it’s fair and it takes into account that it is a very valuable piece of property for the city, and it also takes into account that we've had very bad leases in the past where we end up maintaining the infrastructure,” Arroyo said. "We don't get enough money to cover basic expenses, so just keep that in mind.”

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