City leaders are hopeful the orchestra will be interested in a site east of downtown, but the orchestra is not sharing whether it will consider the property.
Although the Sarasota Orchestra announced Jan. 6 that it has failed to identify a viable site in the city for a new concert hall, City Manager Tom Barwin strongly believes there’s a long-term home for the organization within city limits.
“I’m a thousand percent confident,” Barwin said. “There’s no question in my mind.”
On Monday, Barwin sent an email to city commissioners detailing one location he considers an exciting possible location for an orchestra venue. On Jan. 7, attorney Christopher Jaensch contacted the city on behalf of a group of property owners with land south of Fruitville Road near East Avenue, east of the downtown core.
Jaensch said he thought the area could be developed as a mixed-use district including an orchestra venue, businesses and residences. Jaensch said between 5.8 and 7.1 acres could be combined using parcels on the market or properties an owner has shown a willingness to sell. In total, Jaensch identified land with seven different owners.
“The best thing about this area is that there are almost zero current residents in the district, and the land is mostly unutilized or underutilized, so a redevelopment plan is unlikely to get the kind of pushback that happened with the Payne Park and Selby proposals,” Jaensch said in an email.
In his email to commissioners, Barwin said the land “seems to be an amazing possibility.” He noted the land’s location in an opportunity zone, the location along Fruitville Road, the proximity to an existing Sarasota County parking garage and the potential to redevelop the area east of downtown.
“This is really a rare, unique opportunity, and it could be really special,” Barwin said in an interview Wednesday.
It’s unclear, however, whether the orchestra would see the land as a viable location. After announcing plans to move from its current home on city-owned bayfront land in 2018, the orchestra initially committed to relocating within city limits. In 2019, the orchestra said a segment of Payne Park was the only suitable site it found in the city. The City Commission rejected that proposal following public opposition to the concept. Since then, the orchestra has focused its search for a venue site outside of city limits.
Barwin said the city had previously looked at the area around Fruitville and East as a potential location for an orchestra venue. Barwin estimated the city sent “10 or 12” sites to the orchestra for consideration. Barwin believed the facts included in Janesch’s January email — particularly the emphasis on opportunity zone benefits — was a meaningful update regarding the viability of the site.
Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna declined to state whether the orchestra had previously reviewed the site or whether it would consider it now. McKenna repeatedly referred to the Jan. 6 update in which the orchestra stated it had not found any usable sites in the city but was open to discussing new opportunities if they arose.
“Our most recent update of Jan. 6 continues to be accurate and true,” McKenna said.
On Jan. 6, the City Commission unanimously approved a resolution stating the city was committed to retaining the orchestra. The board also expressed a desire to meet with the orchestra at a public workshop to discuss siting options in hopes of producing a plan that worked for both parties. So far, Barwin said, the orchestra has not indicated whether it’s interested in such a meeting.
Based on the criteria the orchestra has shared regarding its search for a venue site, Barwin said he believed finding a spot in the city should not be an issue if both sides are committed to making it happen. Although he acknowledged the orchestra is an independent organization free to plan its future as it sees fit, he hoped the group’s long-term relationship with the city would establish some good will as the search process continues.
“I don’t know why you’d want to stamp an exit ticket after 65 years of patronage, loyalty and history,” Barwin said.