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Plotting future, fairgrounds open to orchestra discussions

The Sarasota County Agricultural Fair Association is willing to consider the possibility of building a Sarasota Orchestra venue near Robarts Arena.

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  • | 4:20 p.m. June 11, 2019
The organization that operates the Sarasota County Fairgrounds is actively exploring options for improving the property — including the possible construction of a new cultural facility.
The organization that operates the Sarasota County Fairgrounds is actively exploring options for improving the property — including the possible construction of a new cultural facility.
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Rory Martin hasn’t talked to Sarasota Orchestra officials about their ongoing search for a new home, but he’s more than willing to have a conversation about how the orchestra’s future planning efforts might dovetail with those of his own organization.

Martin is president and CEO of the Sarasota County Agricultural Fair Association, the nonprofit that manages the 65-acre fairgrounds property at 3000 Ringling Blvd. As the orchestra has conducted a search for a site to build a concert hall, some residents and city officials have suggested the fairgrounds as a potential match.

During a May meeting with the City Commission, orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna said the search committee considered the fairgrounds and ruled it out. He said the property presented design challenges and potential issues with existing leaseholds.

“We did explore it and look at it, and it was the judgement of our task force and board that it wasn't a viable location,” McKenna said at the May 20 meeting.

But after the orchestra announced it had begun looking outside city limits for a site, Martin said he’d still welcome a discussion with the orchestra about whether a mutually beneficial arrangement could be reached.

“As the group that’s in charge of running an aging facility, we know we need to partner with somebody in order to improve what’s available for the people of our community,” Martin said.  

Martin said the fair association has been internally considering its future needs since 2001, grappling with how to best manage a large property with building infrastructure that dates back to the 1950s. Although the association wants to keep Robarts Arena, a 1967 structure the group has worked to improve in recent years, Martin said it may make sense to replace other buildings on-site.

He said the association has identified some uses that could lead to more activity on the fairgrounds site, including a banquet hall, an events center and a hotel. The association also thinks there’s space for a new cultural facility — one of the reasons the group would be interested in having a conversation with the orchestra about its vision for music hall.

“We recognize that for us to gain traction for our long-range plans, we need a partner,” Martin said. “Someone that would help us achieve a broader goal.”

When the orchestra was seeking approval from the city to build a venue at Payne Park, McKenna said the proposal centered around an 1,800-seat concert hall and a 700-seat flexible recital hall. The orchestra has listed size, elevation, parking and stormwater infrastructure among its criteria for evaluating potential sites.

McKenna did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Previously, he said the orchestra is still willing to consider opportunities within the city even after expanding the site search area.

Martin acknowledged the orchestra’s specific needs may ultimately prevent a partnership with the fairgrounds, citing timing as a potential challenge. He also pointed out that the fair has its own needs, holding events on-site every weekend from August through April.

As long as those needs can be met, though, he said the fair association is willing to consider any opportunity to improve the utility of the fairgrounds.

“We want to be a community asset,” Martin said.


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