As the city prepares to meet with orchestra officials, a group has formed to oppose the concept of building a new venue on public parkland.
Sarasota Orchestra leaders don’t want to get into specifics ahead of a presentation at the May 20 City Commission meeting, but despite some community concerns, the organization will be asking for an endorsement of its proposed concert hall at Payne Park.
The orchestra announced its desire to build a new venue at the downtown-adjacent park at a Feb. 26 special meeting with the City Commission. As it plans to move out of its current bayfront home, the orchestra targeted a seven-acre segment of the 39-acre park as the optimal site for a new performance center. The preliminary plans call for an 1,800-seat concert hall and 700-seat recital hall.
The proposal has been met with questions and opposition. During the February meeting, commissioners directed the orchestra to engage with stakeholders who might be affected by the proposal. At a March community workshop discussing the concept, the majority of those in attendance were park users and neighboring residents offering strong criticism of the concept of giving up city-owned parkland.
Joe McKenna, the orchestra’s president and CEO, said the organization will be providing a response to the initial questions the commission raised in February. Despite any concerns, he thinks the orchestra shares the same goals as a majority of the community. As a result, he said, the orchestra could ask the commission to continue the process beyond the conceptual stage.
McKenna said support for the broader vision is necessary to get into more detailed conversations about the music hall proposal.
“Believing that we’ve satisfied what was asked of us, we will look for taking the next step together, which is to advance planning,” McKenna said. “Visions and concepts are just visions and concepts — they get refined in planning.”
McKenna declined to provide additional details on the orchestra’s presentation.
The agenda for the May 20 meeting, published Thursday, said the commission will discuss approving the orchestra’s “vision for a new music center at Payne Park.” Should the commission approve the request, the agenda states the board could direct the city attorney’s office to prepare a lease for the parkland.
The full agenda item, including backup material, is available on the city’s website.
Although McKenna believes the orchestra will be able to address questions associated with the proposal, a group of residents has formed in opposition to the concept. The Preserve Payne Park coalition includes park users, residents and environmentalists who say the city should not give up green space for the construction of a new building.
At Monday’s commission meeting, four representatives of the group spoke against the orchestra’s proposal. The group says the music hall would disrupt animal habitats, diminish an amenity open to the public and violate the wishes of the donors who sold the property to the city at a reduced rate in the 1920s “for park, playground and kindred uses and for no other use or purpose.”
Already, the group is vowing to put up a fight.
“Frankly, I’d rather spend my time walking the exercise trail, or taking pictures at the duck pond or watching kids run around in the circus playground than fighting legal battles to preserve our public park,” said Kelly Franklin, president of Preserve Payne Park and a resident of nearby Laurel Park. “But you should know we’re prepared to go the distance.”
Fiona Dias, a member of the coalition and a tennis player at Payne Park, said she’s discussed the proposal with others and has heard little support.
“As you talk to them, it really is like — ‘How can they even do that?’” Dias said. “People are incredulous. And once you say, ‘No, they are trying to do this,’ they’re outraged.”
In a May 7 memo, City Attorney Robert Fournier said he thinks there is a viable legal argument for building a concert hall within the park. Fournier did not offer a definitive conclusion in either direction; he said he could not find a case that directly speaks to whether the orchestra venue should be a permitted use. But he said previous case law could allow for an expansive definition of park amenities, particularly when it comes to facilities designed for “amusement.”
“This supports a conclusion that it may be possible to make a successful legal argument that an entertainment venue such as the Sarasota Orchestra is a permissible use within Payne Park,” Fournier wrote.
Ahead of the May 20 meeting, McKenna offered some arguments in favor of the proposal. He said the orchestra was committed to ensuring Payne Park remains vibrant and vowed the planning would be transparent and engage the community. By leaving its current venue, he said the orchestra was facilitating construction of a large park on the bayfront.
Asked why skeptics should trust the project could address their concerns given the lack of detail at this point in the process, McKenna pointed to the orchestra’s history as evidence the group would be a good community partner as it to pursues a new venue.
“The orchestra is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year,” McKenna said. “We’ve been a community asset in the public trust since our inception. We’ve been a responsible steward of our organization, our resources.”
This article has been updated to incorporate information included with the May 20 City Commission meeting agenda.