As the Sarasota Orchestra continues internal deliberations on a new music hall, city leaders and residents are attempting to craft a perfect pitch to retain the organization.
Liz Alpert is worried.
It’s been nearly two years since she was the lone city commissioner to vote in favor of a plan to relocate the Sarasota Orchestra to a 7-acre parcel in Payne Park. The time since that vote has brought vows from the orchestra to look outside of the city for a new home and efforts from city leaders to rekindle a dialogue with the performing arts organization.
Above all else, however, it’s brought uncertainty. This month, the City Commission voted to allow staff to once again explore the possibility of placing a music hall in or around Payne Park — the location the orchestra has called the only suitable site within city limits. And yet, city officials are still unclear on whether they’re doing enough to retain the orchestra — and they’re unclear whether retaining the orchestra is still reasonably within the realm of possibility.
That’s why, at a March 16 meeting, Alpert issued a word of caution to her fellow commissioners and suggested the situation warrants a serious sense of urgency.
“We’re running out of time,” Alpert said. “I’m getting really, really concerned about how much time is going by. Pretty soon, there’s going to be an announcement that they are moving out of the city because we didn’t act fast enough.”
The question of where the Sarasota Orchestra will move has been festering since 2018. That’s when the orchestra announced its plans to relocate from the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, stating its existing home was too small to accommodate the organization’s growing needs. The search for a new site was initially limited to locations within the city, but after unsuccessfully pitching the commission on Payne Park, the orchestra switched its focus to sites elsewhere in Sarasota County.
Despite continued public opposition to the prospect of using existing parkland for a music hall, a majority of the commission was willing to direct staff to reconnect with the orchestra by putting Payne Park back on the table. On March 17, City Manager Marlon Brown sent an email to the commission updating the status of that outreach effort. Brown said McKenna appreciated the city’s patience and support of the orchestra and that he had met with the organization’s board of directors. However, rather than engaging in a dialogue with the city now, McKenna said the orchestra wanted to take more time to meet with its planning team.
McKenna said he would get back to the city before the end of the month, but Brown’s email provided no other information about the status of the site search process. In an interview, McKenna affirmed this week that Brown’s email was still an up-to-date reflection of where the orchestra stands. He declined to share details on what the orchestra would discuss internally.
“The process continues on,” McKenna said.
Some proponents of a music hall near Payne Park aren’t waiting for an update from the orchestra to explore the options.
Roger Barry is a member of the Friends of Sarasota Orchestra Ad-Hoc Committee, a group that believes it’s possible to place the orchestra in the Payne Park area while meaningfully addressing resident concerns about a loss of parkland. On March 15, the group sent a memo to the Sarasota Orchestra reaffirming its belief Payne Park is the ideal site for a venue and identifying three configurations for a new building.
The memo says each option uses little to no parkland while preserving existing ponds, playgrounds and tennis courts.
Option one includes a parking lot east of East Avenue and Adams Lane. The proposed footprint includes some green space on the northeastern end of the park by Payne Skate Park, but the memo states it would be less land than would be incorporated into The Bay Sarasota park by vacating the current orchestra facility.
Options two and three are located along U.S. 301, with some land overlapping between the two proposals. Option two would require the use of a county-owned parking lot south of the Sarasota County Terrace Building. This option would also require the use of a portion of the park that a tennis facility currently occupies, though the group suggested the locker room could be relocated south of the existing courts.
Option three would involve the purchase of some privately owned properties adjacent to Payne Park to offset the loss of any land within the park for the music hall project. The orchestra has previously said it is not commenting on or making assumptions about the availability of private land.
“Whether it would work or not is above my paygrade, but these are suggestions of possibilities we hope would be investigated,” Barry said.
Despite the lack of clarity on where the orchestra stands, Barry said he was more optimistic about the conversation today than he was three months ago.
“At least there’s a hope of looking at this again and seeing if there’s a potential solution that will meet the orchestra’s needs and that the city can accommodate,” Barry said.
Alpert, meanwhile, is hoping commissioners will send a message to the orchestra that the city supports making a location in Payne Park work.
This month, some commissioners expressed concern about the prospect of reusing parkland or skepticism about the idea Payne Park is the only workable site within the city.
“I believe they need a signal from the commission that it’s worth coming back to the table, and we’re really on board with making this happen,” Alpert said.
Asked how proponents of a Payne Park venue could overcome substantial opposition, Alpert said there’s a case to be made that such a project is in the city’s best interest. She said she believes the Payne Park area is optimal for traffic and encouraging redevelopment near downtown.
Amid all the uncertainty, Alpert wants to be confident of at least one thing: that the city exhausted its options for retaining the orchestra before any decision is final.
“I think we need to be proactive in courting them,” Alpert said.