A local group is pitching a bayfront home for a women’s sports museum. Will the concept be a hit with city leaders and residents?
As city officials have discussed demolishing the former GWIZ building on Boulevard of the Arts, a group of Sarasota residents has quietly planned an alternate fate for the property: a museum dedicated to women’s sports.
On Saturday, Women’s Sports Museum Inc. will hold its first major public event, a fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
The nonprofit is not officially committed to any particular location for the project — it’s too early to even have a solid grasp on what the museum’s collections and displays might be like. Still, the group’s board of directors has already honed in on the vacant bayfront site at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts as a fit for its needs.
“I had heard lots of different ideas for the GWIZ property, but that was clearly the best idea I heard,” said Chris Gallagher, a local designer serving as vice president of the museum’s board. “I thought it would be a great complement to downtown, to the community, to everything.”
Gallagher got involved with the effort a year and a half ago, when Charlotte County resident Sue Zipay began searching for architects to help make an idea she had a reality. In the 1950s, Zipay was a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which inspired the movie “A League of Their Own.”
Now the co-owner of the Englewood Tennis Club, Zipay is also a board member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association. In this capacity, Zipay wondered: When the players from the league are gone, what would become of the stories and artifacts they left behind?
“I want to see something where our history could be preserved,” Zipay said, “not just for what we did, but for all women athletes.”
She found there is no museum focused on the history of women’s sports. She set out to fill that void and contacted architect Janet Marie Smith, who has worked on designing baseball stadiums such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Smith wasn’t available to help, but she told Zipay to reach out to Hoyt Architects, a Sarasota firm she worked with on the design of Ed Smith Stadium.
That’s how Zipay got in touch with Gallagher, a partner at Hoyt. He brought other members of the community into the fold, including former Downtown Sarasota Alliance Chairman Michael Beaumier and former Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association President Peter Fanning.
Those involved with the project are concentrated on moving slowly. Saturday’s fundraiser marks the end of the first year of a five-year plan. The second year is dedicated to creating a foundation for the establishment of a museum.
Board members say the early feedback they’ve received has been positive, and they’re hopeful that trend will continue. The group is confident the concept is long overdue, and Fanning thinks the museum would help bolster Sarasota’s status as a destination.
“When people come here, they don’t just come for the beach,” Fanning said. “On a cloudy day, they’ll go to the Ringling or Hollywood 20 — or to the Women’s Sports Museum.”
The group has already held informal conversations with city leaders regarding its plans. After the fundraiser, the board plans to officially begin discussing potential sites to lease from the city.
If the GWIZ property is the goal, there are several challenges that must be addressed. In July, the City Commission directed staff to research the possibility of demolishing the building, which has been vacant since early 2014. Commissioners have expressed concerns about the cost of maintaining the building, which staff estimates needs at least $300,000 in improvements.
The museum proposal has at least one outspoken opponent already — City Commissioner Susan Chapman.
“It’s a private takeover of public property,” Chapman said. “Is there a need for a women’s sports museum? What connection does a woman’s sports museum have to the city of Sarasota — some lady in Englewood who wants to give her collection?”
Gallagher argued that because the government-zoned land restricts the allowed uses on the site, a museum would be one of the city’s best options. Chapman has proposed using the land for a public park, citing citizen surveys associated with the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 planning effort.
“What connection does a woman’s sports museum have to the city of Sarasota?” — Susan Chapman
With the group preparing to go public, Chapman took offense at conceptual images of the museum that feature a new building on the bayfront site.
“We’ve gotten very far afield from what the public wanted,” Chapman said. “I just think it’s very disturbing that these people would have the arrogance to go forward with a fundraiser with renderings of city property that they have no authority to use.”
Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 presents another complication for the museum. Bayfront 20:20 is working to develop a community-backed master plan for 42 acres of city-owned land near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall — land that includes the GWIZ site. The group hopes to have a plan by early 2018, which means it could be hard for the museum team to get a concrete answer before then.
“I think it’d be premature to consider committing anything specific at this time until (a newly formed bayfront planning organization) and the project manager and the firm they’re going to hire get together,” said Michael Klauber, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 chairman.
Again, the Women’s Sports Museum group isn’t locked into any particular plan at this point. Even if the city permitted the use of the GWIZ site, it’s not clear whether the museum would prefer to use the current building or construct a new facility.
As the organization sorts out the logistics of starting a museum from scratch, it wants the city to at least hold off the on the demolition of the existing structure.
Despite the questions surrounding the proposal, those involved with the Women’s Sports Museum are convinced a home in the city of Sarasota is a good match.
“It’s the perfect location for us,” Zipay said.