The City Commission is united in its desire to see the Sarasota Orchestra remain within the city limits, but on Monday, the board was divided about the best way to communicate that message.
At the end of the afternoon session of Monday’s commission meeting, Mayor Liz Alpert said she was interested in placing an item on a future agenda: a resolution stating the city was committed to keeping the orchestra in the city. As the arts organization plans to move from its bayfront home and searches for a site to build a new venue, Alpert said she believed it was important to make a show of support.
When the commission rejected the orchestra’s proposal to build a new venue at Payne Park in May, the board said it wanted to continue to work with the orchestra on finding a site for a concert hall within city limits. As a result, some commissioners Monday questioned the necessity of approving a resolution to say the same thing — and what message, exactly, the city was trying to send.
“I think just a strong statement in a resolution saying we are committed to do that and how important they are to our community would go a long way toward having them stay here,” Alpert said.
“Committed to what?” Commissioner Willie Shaw responded.
Alpert said the idea for the resolution was borne out of an Oct. 18 meeting she and city administrators had with Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joseph McKenna and orchestra board members. Although city staff has been communicating with the orchestra about site options since the May meeting, she thought the orchestra — and the public — could benefit from a reminder the entire commission remained committed to finding a suitable venue site.
City Manager Tom Barwin acknowledged the resolution would be reiterating a sentiment the commission has already communicated, but he still thought it would be valuable considering the state of the orchestra’s search. The orchestra previously said Payne Park was the only viable site it had identified in the city, and after the commission rejected the proposal to use that land, the organization said it would look outside city limits for a place to build a concert hall.
“I think it’s important because we are probably facing competition,” Barwin said of the resolution.
Despite the city’s previous commitment to partnering with the orchestra, McKenna said he thought the resolution would be a meaningful gesture.
“I think in general, any time anybody wants to show support for the orchestra, we welcome that,” McKenna said.
In August, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch suggested the city should make an active effort to re-engage with the orchestra about its search process. On Monday, however, Ahearn-Koch was cautious about the level of commitment the city would be showing to the orchestra.
Ahearn-Koch indicated the orchestra had not contacted her after her August comments for an open dialog about the work it was doing, but instead reached out seeking confirmation it would be legal to use the land in Payne Park for a concert venue. As a result, Ahearn-Koch questioned the rationale behind moving forward with a resolution.
“I extended a hand to the orchestra, and that was rejected, so I’m a little confused about taking an even stronger step,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Shaw and Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie also expressed some hesitation about passing a resolution, asking if the commission could just send a letter to the orchestra instead. Like Ahearn-Koch, Shaw said he was concerned about the prospect of the orchestra continuing to pursue the use of Payne Park.
“I don’t want to open a door we’ve already closed through a resolution that’s ambiguous to me at this point,” Shaw said.
Alpert and Barwin acknowledged the city previously ruled out using Payne Park and said the resolution would not be related to that concept.
“We’ve made it clear Payne Park is not on the table at this point,” Barwin said.
McKenna said the orchestra is not actively exploring the possibility of using land at Payne Park to build a venue.
“The city was pretty clear,” McKenna said. “They withdrew Payne Park from consideration. There’s nothing there to talk about.”
The commission ultimately agreed to direct city staff to draft a resolution showing support for retaining the orchestra. The resolution will be discussed at a future meeting.
McKenna did not give a timeline for when the orchestra hopes to select a site. He said the organization would continue to limit the information it discloses to the public until it arrived at a conclusion.
“At such time that we have clarity, it’s at that point we will comment,” McKenna said.