City officials want to re-engage the orchestra to keep the arts organization in the city — which could mean reconsidering the use of land in Payne Park.
Sami Leigh Scott was happy when the City Commission rejected a proposal in May to build a concert hall for the Sarasota Orchestra in Payne Park, but she didn’t think the fight was over.
Scott, who helped found the Preserve Payne Park coalition in response to the orchestra’s proposal, now believes her suspicions were right. City officials have floated the possibility of using land adjacent to Payne Park for an orchestra facility, a concept that might still require the use of some parkland to meet the orchestra’s needs.
Although most city and orchestra representatives declined to talk about any specific sites as the orchestra searches for a new home, Scott is preparing for another battle — and she’s making it clear that some people who forcefully opposed the initial proposal have a hard line when it comes to using the park property.
“Payne Park proper must stay pristine, recreational, without structure, without damage to the ecosystem,” Scott said.
In May, the city voted against considering the orchestra’s proposal to use seven acres at Payne Park. The orchestra, which intends to move out of its bayfront facility, is focusing its search for a new concert hall outside of the city limits. Orchestra officials said Payne Park was the only viable site it identified in the city, though it did not share detailed information on its search process.
Commissioners briefly discussed the orchestra at the end of an Aug. 19 meeting. Although the commission directed staff to keep working with the orchestra on trying to find a site within city limits in May, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch wanted officials to try to make an active effort to re-engage with the orchestra.
“Nothing specific, nothing in mind,” Ahearn-Koch said. “Just sort of reaching out to them and seeing if we can continue to be creative and engage and work with them.”
Mayor Liz Alpert agreed and specifically targeted a 1.4-acre city-owned property at U.S. 301 and Laurel Street — adjacent to Payne Park — as land the orchestra might be able to use.
The city has identified at least three other sites it believes might merit consideration for the orchestra’s use, including the Sarasota County Fairgrounds property on Fruitville Road. But the land near Payne Park was the only one mentioned at the Aug. 19 meeting — first by City Manager Tom Barwin, then by Alpert.
Alpert said she’s willing to explore any options to ensure the orchestra can stay in the city. As the lone commissioner who supported the initial Payne Park vision, she thinks the use of the adjacent land could offset some of the concern members of the public expressed.
Although opponents of the initial proposal packed the commission chambers in May, Alpert said some residents support building a venue in that area.
“They’re just not the ones who get all excited and show up at a meeting,” Alpert said. “There are a lot of people who want the orchestra to stay downtown, to stay in the city [and who] think that’s a great location for it.”
In June, Alpert wrote a letter to Kate Shumate, a descendent of Calvin Payne, who donated the land to the city for the creation of the park. Alpert discussed the prospect of reducing the amount of parkland used, minimizing the affected area. Shumate wrote back that Payne’s descendants opposed the concept and said using any parkland for the orchestra facility would trigger a lawsuit accusing the city of violating the deed.
Alpert isn’t the only city official who has continued to consider the area near Payne Park as an option. On July 1, city staff produced a memo outlining potential sites within the city that could meet the orchestra’s needs.
Among the sites included is the 1.4-acre site on U.S. 301. Although the property is possibly undersized, the memo notes “the site is located just north of several underdeveloped parcels which may be available for orchestra acquisition and use.”
Mark Kauffman, a downtown property owner and member of the board of directors for the city’s Downtown Improvement District, has also advocated for the use of the land near Payne Park for the orchestra site. Kauffman said he thought it was important that the orchestra remain downtown, and he criticized opponents of the initial proposal.
“The commission should be long-sighted, looking for the next hundred years,” Kauffman said. “They are not obliged to listen to the vocal majority. They should do what’s right.”
Scott said Barwin met with tennis players at Payne Park in July and asked if those in attendance would support the use of the nearby property to offset some of the land that would be lost if a concert hall were built in the park.
Scott, a tennis player, said the idea went over poorly. She took issue with the idea city leaders were still considering the use of Payne Park. According to the official minutes from the May 20 commission meeting, Commissioner Willie Shaw said “Payne Park is completely out of the conversation” when he made a motion to ask the orchestra to consider other sites, a motion that passed in a 4-1 vote.
Scott suggested Alpert and Barwin were acting out of order by discussing using the land.
“I think the public needs to know that in the mayor’s mind, the people’s assets are always up for grabs,” Scott said.
The search continues
As the orchestra continues to search for a venue, Scott thinks the community was clear it isn’t interested in giving up parkland to facilitate a the construction of concert hall. If Payne Park remains under consideration, she said residents would continue to push back.
“Under no circumstances are we willing to give up any portion of it, whether it’s to the orchestra or to any other man-made structure that damages and injures the landscape,” Scott said.
The city declined to make Barwin or another official available for an interview on the orchestra search process. In a statement issued through a spokesman, the city said it has weekly talks with the orchestra and is “open to assisting their search however we can.”
Staff is working on providing an update to commissioners on the discussions with the orchestra at Ahearn-Koch’s request. Ahearn-Koch, who voted against a facility in Payne Park in May, declined to comment on whether she would consider a potential revised proposal that used a smaller portion of the parkland.
She said she brought the topic up at Monday’s meeting because she heard from residents who wanted the city to make clear it was willing and eager to work with the orchestra.
“I would just like to focus on going forward with thinking creatively about what will work, what is possible, what can we do and what can the community support,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Ahearn-Koch, who was critical about the amount of information shared at the May meeting, said the orchestra had not presented any additional details to her about its site search. Ahearn-Koch and Alpert both hoped a renewed dialogue could let officials know more about the organization’s needs.
At least one commissioner was reluctant to talk about the orchestra without any new information. Commissioner Hagen Brody said he encouraged staff and the orchestra to continue to work together, including giving consideration to the land near Payne Park, but he saw no value in the commission revisiting the discussion at a future meeting.
“What more can we do at this point?” Brody said.
Joe McKenna, CEO and president of the Sarasota Orchestra, declined to discuss specifics about the orchestra’s search process. He said it has expanded its focus outside the city, but it is not precluding the consideration of sites within city limits should viable options emerge.
“The communication between the orchestra and city staff has been and continues to be open and productive,” McKenna said.