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Is it curtain time?

The experts say the Van Wezel is obsolete and preserving it is looking increasingly remote. That is, unless you have some ingenious, affordable idea.

  • Sarasota
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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. 

Joking aside, the 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 purple performing arts icon itself is increasing.

Sarasota citizens had the opportunity this week to share their views on this subject, as well as on three concept plans that the planning organization and the world-renowned Sasaki planning group presented at four open house sessions.

But as the leaders of this effort listened, the consensus among them appears to line 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 The existing Van Wezel is obsolete. 

To be blunt, it would be economically senseless to pour millions more into the old 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. But you can expect a rerun of movies we have all seen before when the City Commission faces the vote to raze. You know how it goes: The sentimental preservationists will wage a vociferous and emotional campaign, drowning out the voices of reality and common sense. The commissioners will choke, delay and squirm 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 alternatives already have surfaced: The City Commission could require the Van Wezel’s clam shell shape be included in the design of a new outdoor amphitheater, or, the commission could mandate the use of the hall’s distinctive purple in a new bayfront facility.

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

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 the existing Van Wezel. Indeed, the three concepts presented this week included a new performing arts hall with no Van Wezel still on the 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 it. 


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