As more than a dozen residents at Monday’s City Commission meeting asked officials not to use land in Payne Park for a venue for the Sarasota Orchestra, several speakers offered a common refrain: Haven’t we already gone through this?
To some extent, the answer was yes. In 2019, the Sarasota Orchestra announced Payne Park was the only site within city limits it had found to build a music hall. Orchestra representatives asked the city to dedicate 7 acres of the park for construction of a complex that could serve the arts organization’s long-term needs.
The proposal had some supporters, but it drew much more vocal pushback from residents who were steadfastly opposed to the prospect of giving up green space. Those residents were unconvinced by the orchestra’s claim that the park was the only viable option in the city for moving from the bayfront. So was the City Commission, which voted 4-1 in May 2019 to reject the idea.
Nearly two years later, however, some city officials believe circumstances have meaningfully changed. Mayor Hagen Brody voted to rule out Payne Park in 2019, but last month, he determined that decision was worth revisiting. The orchestra has still not settled on a location, but it has focused on sites outside of the city limits.
At Brody’s request, the commission discussed whether it should empower staff to re-engage the orchestra by putting Payne Park back on the table. The commission voted 4-1 in favor of reconnecting with the orchestra and reversing its firm prohibition on the prospect of using land in Payne Park for a music hall.
Based on Monday’s commission meeting, giving the orchestra access to Payne Park remains a contentious proposal — not just among members of the public but also among elected officials. A majority of the commission expressed some preference for not using parkland off the bayfront to accommodate the orchestra.
“I do not have any interest in having another discussion about Payne Park proper,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said.
Although some speakers and commissioners expressed hope that there was enough property around Payne Park to facilitate a venue without using green space, others were less reluctant to consider using parkland. Brody said part of what fueled his desire to revisit Payne Park as an option was fear the orchestra could move elsewhere in Sarasota County.
“We have to recognize the orchestra has publicly ruled out any other spot in the city,” he said. “I don’t want to make it sound like this is the last resort, but they’ve made it pretty clear that it is.”
One voice not represented Monday: the Sarasota Orchestra.
On Tuesday, orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna said the organization was “actively listening” to the discussion and that there were “a lot of different nuances” to the commission’s conversation. McKenna said the orchestra appreciates the dialogue as it continues to work on plans for a new venue and that it was working to schedule a follow-up meeting with city administration.
Although McKenna declined to discuss many specifics regarding the orchestra’s takeaways from the meeting, he did say he wanted to know more about the city’s stance on the legality of a music hall in Payne Park. The city purchased the land at a discount rate in 1925, a gift from Calvin and Martha Payne. The deed came with a restriction that stated the land “shall be used for park, playground and kindred uses and for no other use or purpose.”
Advocates for preserving Payne Park have used that clause to argue the city could not allow a venue in Payne Park. In 2019, City Attorney Robert Fournier wrote a memo stating that Florida case law “could support a potentially successful legal argument” in favor of a venue in Payne Park. Fournier said state law could allow for a broad definition of a park that does not preclude the inclusion of such a facility as a museum or performance space.
Kelly Franklin, the president of the Preserve Payne Park coalition, said city officials should expect a multiyear legal battle if they do attempt to use land in the park. Franklin said she thought it was possible to arrive at a plan that satisfied all parties.
“If they’re stuck on that one solution, we will end up in a stalemate,” Franklin said. “But there’s more than one solution to the need.”
Although the orchestra has said Payne Park is the only suitable option in the city, speakers at Monday’s meeting offered alternatives.
Ahearn-Koch said the orchestra is free to build a new venue on city-owned bayfront land, where the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center sits. (In 2018, the orchestra announced its intent to move off the bayfront, in part over concerns related to sea-level rise.)
Commissioner Erik Arroyo said he was having ongoing conversations with the Sarasota County Agricultural Fair Association about placing the orchestra at the Sarasota Fairgrounds. (In 2019, the orchestra said the fairgrounds presented design challenges and possible lease conflicts, though the fair association said it was willing to explore a partnership.)
Commissioner Kyle Battie said he had seen a conceptual design from architect Michael Halflants using land adjacent to Payne Park that appeared suitable for addressing the orchestra’s needs without eliminating green space. Halflants declined to discuss specifics of the idea before sharing it with the orchestra, but he felt it was possible to preserve the park and meet orchestra criteria.
“For us, there was a clear solution that would do both,” he said.
Several speakers suggested the orchestra wasn’t being flexible. In 2019, city staff identified three other sites for an orchestra venue, including a city-owned parcel adjacent to Payne Park that could take advantage of nearby privately owned land.
Resident Chris Bales wondered whether the organization had an “edifice complex,” plotting an overly large structure with debatable long-term value as other orchestras face financial challenges and declining audiences.
“I have to ask: Are we in danger of having a big, empty, expensive concert hall?” Bales said.
McKenna said the orchestra determined its criteria for a new venue based on its needs for the next 100 years. In addition to a performance hall for the orchestra, the venue will include rehearsal areas and facilities for its educational programming.
“Everything the orchestra has a position on is the result of extensive planning, due diligence, thoroughness,” McKenna said. “That’s been the basis of the entire process.”
Commissioner Liz Alpert, who supported the orchestra’s initial proposal, still thinks Payne Park makes sense. She said she’s received input from constituents who want the city to take action to prevent the orchestra from relocating to such an area as Lakewood Ranch. She noted the orchestra’s facility sits on 4 city-owned acres slated to become a park, which would help offset the loss of any green space.
As the city once again discusses its options with the orchestra, both patrons of the arts and park preservationists will be watching.
“If necessary, we’ll be back in force,” said Sami Leigh Scott, the vice president of the Preserve Payne Park coalition. “Payne Park is worth another fight.”