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Orchestra expands venue search beyond city limits

After the City Commission rejected a proposal to construct a music hall in Payne Park, the Sarasota Orchestra announced it will look outside of the city for a new home.

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  • | 3:11 p.m. May 30, 2019
As the Sarasota Orchestra's search for a new venue expands, city officials say finding a home for the organization within the city is a priority. Photo courtesy Sarasota Orchestra.
As the Sarasota Orchestra's search for a new venue expands, city officials say finding a home for the organization within the city is a priority. Photo courtesy Sarasota Orchestra.
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On May 21, as the City Commission prepared to deny the Sarasota Orchestra’s request to build a music hall on a portion of Payne Park, board members said they believed the arts organization could work with the city to find another suitable site to place a venue.

“There are other options in this city,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said.

Today, however, the orchestra announced its search for a new home will expand beyond the city limits.

In a release, the orchestra said its board of directors voted unanimously to expand the search area. When the orchestra announced its intent to move from its bayfront home last year, President and CEO Joe McKenna said the organization would limit its search to sites within the city.

McKenna said today the orchestra board felt it had exhausted its options within the city limits, though the organization is not ruling out the consideration of additional sites in the city. He said the orchestra’s facility planning task force will be assigned with guiding the broadened search, including setting the boundaries of any search area.

“They will do a thoughtful and comprehensive review of those possibilities now the geographical scope has been expanded,” McKenna said.

Following the orchestra’s announcement, the city issued a release stating it remains committed to finding a site for the orchestra within its boundaries.

“If the orchestra ultimately chooses to leave its current facility at the bayfront, we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to continue this strong, longstanding and productive relationship,” Mayor Liz Alpert said in the release.

After the commission rejected the orchestra’s preferred site at Payne Park, McKenna said finding somewhere in the city remained a priority. At that meeting, however, orchestra representatives said they had already conducted a search for sites in the city, calling Payne Park the only available site that fit their needs. They said they evaluated 13 sites over a period of more than two years.

The orchestra has not shared the specific process used to evaluate the viability of a potential site. At the commission meeting, the orchestra said criteria considered included acreage, site elevation, parking and stormwater infrastructure, environmental issues, land-use regulations and the surrounding street system.

McKenna shared four sites the orchestra considered and dismissed. Circus Trail Nature Park, located at Fruitville Road and Beneva Road, came with flooding and environmental concerns, McKenna said. So did the idea of using a portion of Bobby Jones Golf Club. The Marian Anderson Place site in north Sarasota presented access issues, and the Sarasota Fairgrounds posed design challenges and potential conflicts with existing leaseholds.

Although commissioners have criticized the orchestra for not divulging enough information about its site evaluation process, McKenna said the organization did extensive work to arrive at the conclusion that Payne Park was the only viable city site.

“I would say this: The orchestra has had a long-standing reputation for quality planning,” McKenna said.

The orchestra said it is relocating from the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center because of space constraints and concerns about sea level rise. In the release, the orchestra said it also hoped to construct a new venue ahead of the timeline for the planned redevelopment of the city-owned bayfront land where its current home sits.

Critics of the Payne Park proposal accused the orchestra of using the prospect of moving out of the city as leverage in a quest to secure its favored site. Ahead of the City Commission vote, McKenna rejected that notion, reiterating that remaining in the city was a priority for the orchestra.

“The mutual goal of both the city and the orchestra is to stay in the city,” McKenna said in a previous interview with the Sarasota Observer. “That’s sort of a broad, mutual goal.”

Commissioners have expressed a belief the city and orchestra can work collaboratively to find a location for a music hall that works for both parties. In an emailed statement today, Brody said the bayfront remains an available site for the orchestra to pursue. He said officials are exploring other site possibilities and was encouraged that the orchestra continues to consider locations in the city.

“The orchestra and its musicians are vital to the fabric of our arts community and we will bend over backwards to keep them in the city of Sarasota,” Brody said.

Still, Alpert — the lone dissenting vote on the Payne Park proposal — feared rejecting that site could invite the orchestra’s departure.

“I think the important thing is that we don't want to lose the orchestra to the city after 70 years,” Alpert said May 21. “It's just one of our essential assets.”


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