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Mayor suggests reconsidering Payne Park as orchestra home

In an email to city staff today, Hagen Brody said he wanted the commission to revisit its prohibition on using the land in and around Payne Park for a new music hall.

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  • | 4:32 p.m. February 12, 2021
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In May 2019, in front of a packed chamber at City Hall, the City Commission voted 4-1 to rule out the use of any land at Payne Park to facilitate a new venue for the Sarasota Orchestra.

As the orchestra continues to search for a long-term home — and focuses its attention on sites outside of the city limits — Mayor Hagen Brody thinks the city should reconsider the prohibition it adopted nearly two years ago.

Brody sent an email to City Manager Marlon Brown today asking to place an item on the March 1 commission agenda that, if approved, would allow the city to once again explore the use of land in Payne Park with the orchestra.

Brody, who voted against the use of land in Payne Park in 2019, said he continues to oppose the specific plan the orchestra presented at the time. The Sarasota Orchestra sought to use seven acres of the 39-acre park to construct a venue with an 1,800-seat concert hall and a 700-seat flexible recital hall.

But Brody said circumstances have changed since the commission’s initial vote. At the time, Brody said he had not seen enough research into the viability of other sites within the city limits. After that meeting, Brody said he discovered that multiple sites he suspected were suitable were not actually feasible for various reasons.

The orchestra has said Payne Park is the only viable music hall site it identified in the city. Following the 2019 vote, the orchestra announced it was expanding its search to sites outside of the city limits. Joe McKenna, president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra, reaffirmed today the organization continues to focus on options in Sarasota County as it pursues a new venue.

Fearful of losing the orchestra as a cultural institution for the city, Brody said he believed the time was right to explore Payne Park as an option. The orchestra’s initial proposal drew outspoken opposition from park users and residents who objected to the idea of giving up public green space for a performing arts hall. Brody noted that, during his time on the board, the city has approved the creation of more than 150 acres of public park space on the bayfront, at Bobby Jones Golf Club and in the Rosemary District.

“I don’t think anyone can say this is not a commission that’s supportive of public parks and green space,” Brody said. “We’re just also supportive of the arts.”

Opponents and supporters of the Sarasota Orchestra's initial venue proposal packed the commission chambers during a meeting on May 20, 2019. File photo.
Opponents and supporters of the Sarasota Orchestra's initial venue proposal packed the commission chambers during a meeting on May 20, 2019. File photo.

The 2019 discussion included legal questions about whether the orchestra could build a facility at Payne Park. The property carries a deed restriction stating the land should be used “for park, playground and kindred uses and for no other use or purpose.”

Brody said he just wanted to give the city and the orchestra the option to discuss the use of Payne Park, noting that the rest of the commission would need to support his proposal and the orchestra would ultimately need to put together a plan the board was willing to adopt.

“If the commission agrees and wants to give them the option to explore it, it’ll be up to [the orchestra] and city staff and other community partners to work out a concept that is mutually beneficial,” Brody said.

McKenna said he had not seen Brody’s emails and could not speak to the specifics of his proposal. McKenna said the orchestra has not actively considered Payne Park as an option for a venue following the 2019 vote, and the organization is focused on creating a regional music center that meets its long-term needs.

“What do we need to do to make sure the Sarasota Orchestra thrives and contributes to the vitality of the Sarasota region?” McKenna said. “That’s what guides us.”

McKenna did not share specifics on the status of the site search process, stating the orchestra is eager to find a new home and will update the public when its work is complete.

“When it’s there, we’ll be in touch,” McKenna said.

Earlier this month, the Downtown Improvement District expressed its interest in lobbying the city and the orchestra to reconsider the option of using land in or around Payne Park for a music hall. Mark Kauffman, a DID board member and the owner of multiple properties near Payne Park, said he had spoken to multiple commissioners who were supportive of the idea.

In a previous interview with the Sarasota Observer, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said she would be open to discussing options adjacent to the park with the orchestra, but she remained opposed to the idea of using parkland.

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

Brody, Ahearn-Koch and Liz Alpert are the only commissioners who remain on the board from the 2019 vote. Alpert was the lone commissioner to express support for the orchestra’s initial Payne Park proposal.

Brody said he wanted the city to rekindle its conversation with the Sarasota Orchestra now because he felt officials needed to be proactive about keeping the organization within city limits.

“We just can’t afford to lose the orchestra if we’re going to continue to consider ourselves a cultural hub and center of culture for the west coast of Florida,” Brody said. “We have to maintain the cultural and artistic mainstays we’ve had in our community for decades.”


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