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A generational decision

Where the Sarasota Orchestra lands will be a pivotal influence on the city of Sarasota’s cultural future.

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Oh, what a dilemma: Finding a home for the Sarasota Orchestra — and for Sarasota’s many other fine community music groups. A home that could be, should be, a premier music performing center.

When you put serious thought into this issue, it’s not just some simple site search. In the grander scheme, this issue should be regarded as one of the most important generational decisions facing the city of Sarasota at this particular moment.

It is not exaggerating to say where the orchestra lands will have a pivotal influence on the future of the city as the epicenter of the region’s philanthropy and the arts and its bragging rights as the cultural capital of Florida.

As we’ve seen the past two weeks, this issue and dilemma resurfaced when Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody asked city commissioners to allow city staff to discuss with Sarasota Orchestra officials whether a small portion of Payne Park could be a viable site for a music performance, rehearsal and education center.

This was quite a surprise,  especially to orchestra officials and especially after Brody two years ago was among the four commissioners who resoundingly said no to exploring and having a discussion about the idea of Payne Park as a site.

Back then, that’s all the orchestra was asking — to explore the concept. It wasn’t asking for a yes or no. It was taking the same approach that Michael Klauber, Drayton Saunders and Virginia Haley took when they broached with the city the idea of exploring what could be done with the 50 acres around the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

But commissioners said no, a big no, 4-1, to the orchestra.

So if you were a member of the Sarasota Orchestra board or in the seat of orchestra CEO Joe McKenna, how could you, or why would you, take Brody’s new overture seriously? Why bother?

One response might be the fact the City Commission, with two new members, voted this time 4-1 in favor of city staff exploring the idea with the orchestra. But you can just as easily offset that vote with the vow from representatives of the Preserve Payne Park coalition to fight against the orchestra just as hard as they did before.

“If necessary, we’ll be back in force,” Sami Leigh Scott, the vice president of the coalition, told the Observer’s David Conway. “Payne Park is worth another fight.”

Typical. And to be expected. No matter what city is involved, urban planners will tell you when anyone suggests taking away public park acreage, it’s a St. Jude moment — a lost cause.

Knowing this opposition, why waste weeks and months of everyone’s time, only to end up with another undeserved public flogging of the orchestra?

Instead, Brody and his fellow commissioners would do well first to learn and answer what McKenna believes — rightly — are the more pertinent and important questions to be answered. As he posed them to us: “What does the orchestra need to do to remain artistically, economically, socially and educationally vibrant?”

Or, put another way, pose these questions to the commissioners: How important is the orchestra to the city? And once that is answered, what does the city need to do, so the orchestra can indeed remain vibrant?

To answer the first — the importance of the orchestra to the city — think of the consequences if, say, the orchestra moves out of the city to Lakewood Ranch’s Waterside community in east Sarasota County.

If you’re a regionalist, you might have no qualms with that. After all, Lakewood Ranch and Waterside are integral parts of the Sarasota-Bradenton metro region. And it’s clear the region’s growth is eastward, increasingly attracting and developing the amenities that every community wants nearby.

But if the orchestra does indeed leave the city, such a move would weaken the city’s cultural heritage and its cultural and philanthropic standing and send a message that could easily spread.

For more than 50 years, the orchestra has been a pillar of Sarasota. Indeed, it’s the oldest continuing orchestra in Florida.

Over the past 20 years, the orchestra’s annual budget has grown from $4 million to $11 million; it employs 225 people.  The orchestra and its music festivals are nationally recognized. With 72 musicians, it performs more than 100 concerts a year. Its nationally acclaimed youth orchestra has grown in 20 years from serving 160 local students to serving 330. During the winter season, the orchestra’s performances are a key component to the vibrancy of the downtown social, cultural and culinary scenes.

What happens if it is gone, no longer in the heart of the city?

For seven years, the orchestra’s board has been examining deliberately and carefully how and where to assure a vibrant future. It has engaged leading architects, arts venue consultants and fundraisers to help it make this generational decision. McKenna said that although the board wants to resolve where its physical future will be, it is disciplined “to do the right thing.”

Ultimately, though, if the orchestra is to remain an essential pillar of the city’s cultural identity, city commissioners, downtown business and civic leaders, and city residents themselves will need to show the orchestra convincing support. That also means someone must step forward to be the champion and leader of this effort. Someone outside of the orchestra  must show courage, persistence, passion and vision.

This is the time when an elected CEO mayor is needed. But absent that leader, there are five city commissioners who could work as one. Through their courage, persistence, passion and vision, they can show the importance of the orchestra to the city.

Who will be the champion?



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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