At the end of March, the Sarasota Orchestra reached out to the city of Sarasota to provide a much-anticipated update on the organization’s search for a new venue.
In its correspondence, the orchestra emphasized two things. One: The organization still considers Payne Park the only viable site for building a music hall within city limits. Two: In order to seriously engage in a conversation with city officials, the orchestra wanted the City Commission to affirm that it has the legal authority to allow construction of a venue on the parkland.
Although the commission has not taken any action on the orchestra’s request, the orchestra and city officials met April 23 to discuss the site-search process. Although neither party divulged detailed information about the meeting, orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna characterized it as a positive conversation about the performing arts organization’s planning work.
“We met with the mayor and city manager recently to discuss the orchestra’s growth, its needs and its long-term future,” McKenna said. “That was a good starting point.”
The meeting was the latest step in a rekindled dialog between the city and orchestra about the possibility of building a music hall in or adjacent to Payne Park. On March 1, the commission voted 4-1 to engage the orchestra in a conversation about options — reversing a 2019 vote that ruled out the idea of using land in Payne Park.
Although orchestra advocates and park preservationists expressed hope the orchestra’s needs could be met while minimizing or altogether avoiding the use of actual parkland, the orchestra’s March 31 response to the city largely rejected that idea. In the report, the orchestra stood behind the core elements of its 2019 proposal, which sought a seven-acre property to construct a facility with an 1,800-seat concert hall, a 700-square foot flexible recital hall, rehearsal space and an education wing.
On April 8, City Manager Marlon Brown sent a response to McKenna regarding the orchestra’s report to the city. In the report, Brown pushed for a meeting with orchestra officials without any commission action. Brown said the city’s position about Payne Park “could not be clearer” following the March 1 vote. Brown also advocated for both parties to approach the meeting with the willingness to show some flexibility.
“In complete agreement with you, we do accomplish more together as a community, and our collaborative approach should continue throughout the process with an open mind and willingness to compromise in achieving our mutually stated objective of keeping the Sarasota Orchestra in the city of Sarasota,” Brown wrote.
As conversations between the city and the orchestra continue, citizen stakeholders are closely watching. Members of the Downtown Friends of the Orchestra, a grassroots group formed to lobby for the retention of the orchestra in the city, have posted fliers encouraging the public to contact city and orchestra officials expressing their support for the arts organization.
On Tuesday, the Downtown Improvement District was scheduled to discuss a grant request related to the retention of the Sarasota Orchestra. Although that item was postponed until May, DID board member Mark Kauffman said he had spoken to some park preservationists who indicated they were increasingly open to options for placing a music hall in Payne Park.
Kelly Franklin, president of the Preserve Payne Park coalition, said her outlook is largely unchanged from where it was at the beginning of April. Franklin said she and other residents continue to prioritize the protection of the parkland, and she noted the city could face legal challenges if it attempted to build a private venue on Payne Park.
“The Preserve Payne Park position is still what it was: We want to keep our park and our green space,” Franklin said. “We fought very hard for it for 100 years.”
Franklin said she would like to see the orchestra remain in the city if possible, and she encouraged the organization’s leadership to consider alternatives to the controversial initial venue plan.
For now, the orchestra and the city expressed optimism that a productive conversation can continue.
“That dialog has begun; we’ll continue that,” McKenna said. “At such point there’s more to report on and discuss, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”