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Is it curtain time?

Preserving the Van Wezel is looking remote. That is, unless you have some ingenious, affordable idea.

  • Longboat Key
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Here is an idea: Longboat Key and the Ringling College of Art and Design should spare themselves the troubles of raising $18 million to construct a new arts, education and cultural center on Longboat Key. Just move the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to Longboat.

Just joking … 

That would have been a good spoof in the April Fool’s edition. The idea is not all that far-fetched, because, as we all know, stranger things have happened around here.

Seriously, we’re kidding. Talk about a fish — or sea shell — out of water. Can you imagine the Van Wezel sitting next to the new Chase Bank, Publix and the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center? We can only imagine how such a proposal would mobilize the Keep Longboat Special forces.

Joking aside, the future fate of the Van Wezel is no joke. As the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization moves forward on how to redevelop the city’s 50 acres of bayfront surrounding the Van Wezel, discussion about what to do with the Van Wezel itself is increasing throughout the region.

Longboat Key residents, as well as residents of Bird, Lido, St. Armands and Lido Shores keys, should weigh in. After all, they are among the most active supporters (financially and as attendees) at Van Wezel and cultural arts functions in Sarasota.

Citizens had the opportunity this week to speak at open houses — one of them from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Van Wezel — and to view three preliminary concepts for the site.

But as of this writing, the consensus from the Bayfront Planning Organization lines up with the results of a study the Van Wezel Foundation commissioned two years ago with AMS Planning and Research. AMS concluded a new performing arts hall is needed. The existing Van Wezel is obsolete. 

In other words, it would be economically senseless to pour millions more into the structure to try to keep it functional as the city’s premier performing arts hall. What’s more, because it sits in the flood plain, federal laws also would limit how much could be reinvested, rendering prospects for keeping it operational dead.

But now what? The ultimate decision for razing the hall rests with the Sarasota City Commission. You can expect a re-run of movies we’ve all seen before when the City Commission faces the vote to raze. The sentimental preservationists will wage a vociferous and emotional campaign, drowning out the voices of reality and common sense. The commissioners will choke and delay, scratching and clawing to find a way at least to keep parts of the iconic building in tact.

Bill Waddill, managing director of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, told the Sarasota Observer last week: “The building either gets removed and honored, or repurposed somehow.” A few other alternatives have surfaced as well: The commission could require the Van Wezel’s clam shell shape be incorporated into the design of a new amphitheater, or, it could mandate the use of the distinct purple hue in a new bayfront facility.

It would be nice to figure out how to preserve the old purple shell. But when we think of how the city managed the old (and iconic) Selby Library on the bayfront (it was the GWiz science center), it is difficult to have confidence the city could manage a shuttered performing arts hall without it becoming a financial albatross.

If the citizens of Sarasota think a new performing arts hall should be a landmark of the redeveloped Bayfront, it’s difficult to imagine there being room to accommodate both. Indeed, the three concepts presented this week included a new performing arts hall with no Van Wezel still on site.

It appears overwhelmingly inevitable — the Van Wezel is fast approaching its demise. But who knows, there are a lot of smart people in this region. Perhaps someone has a creative, sensible idea that can save some of the old icon. To be sure, the Bayfront Planning Organization would like to hear.


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