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Downtown group revisits orchestra venue talks

Despite the city previously ruling it out, the Downtown Improvement District continues to have interest in placing the Sarasota Orchestra at Payne Park

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  • | 3:03 p.m. February 3, 2021
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Mark Kauffman isn’t giving up on securing a home for the Sarasota Orchestra near the city’s downtown core.

It’s been more than 20 months since the City Commission rejected the orchestra’s proposal to build a venue on city-owned land at Payne Park.

Still, Kauffman remains convinced that the area southeast of downtown is the best fit as the orchestra searches for a site to construct a concert hall, and he’s lobbying orchestra leaders and city officials to consider a reconfigured proposal.

Kauffman, a member of the Downtown Improvement District, updated the rest of the DID board on the status of the orchestra site search at a meeting Tuesday. Although the proposed use of a portion of Payne Park drew strong pushback from some members of the public, Kauffman said altering the original concept could preserve more parkland. Kauffman suggested the city and the county could both contribute lane along U.S. 301 to offset the need to use land along Payne Park.

Kauffman said he had scheduled a meeting with Joe McKenna, the president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra, but they had not had an opportunity to discuss the status of the site exploration process. In 2019, after the city rejected the Payne Park proposal, the orchestra announced it was focusing its search outside of city limits because it was unable to identify another suitable site within the city. The orchestra reaffirmed that position in January 2020.

Kauffman also indicated he had spoken to city commissioners and found a majority was receptive to considering the alternate plans for Payne Park, despite the previous vote. Kauffman acknowledged he was not an orchestra board member and was not privy to more detailed information about the process of securing land for a new venue, a necessity after the orchestra announced its plans to move out of the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center in 2018.

“I don’t know why the delay and why they haven’t done it,” Kauffman said. “The only reason I can assume is maybe there’s some discussion going on behind the scenes. Maybe [the orchestra has] a deal they can’t refuse elsewhere.”

A city spokesperson said he was not aware of any recent discussions city administration had regarding the Sarasota Orchestra. In January 2020, the city reiterated its commitment to finding a location for an orchestra facility within city limits while continuing to rule out the use of Payne Park.

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who voted against the Payne Park proposal in 2018, said she was willing to listen to a revised proposal in the same general area if it did not infringe on parkland.

“I think the key there was ‘in or around [Payne Park],’” Ahearn-Koch said. “In? No. Around? That’s a whole different discussion."

Ahearn-Koch said she hadn’t heard from the orchestra since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she reiterated her interest in helping to facilitate the orchestra’s search process if the arts organization wanted the city’s help. She also said she hoped the orchestra would reconsider staying on the bayfront long-term.

The rest of the Downtown Improvement District shared Kauffman’s desire to retain the orchestra in the city center, calling it an important part of the cultural identity of downtown.

“If we lose all these arts, … then we’re just another seaside town,” board member Eileen Hampshire said. “We really have to do everything we can.”


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