Despite continued efforts by residents and officials to rally support for retaining the Sarasota Orchestra within city limits, orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna said the group has ruled out all sites within city limits and is focusing its search for a new home elsewhere in Sarasota County.
Since 2019, the orchestra has identified Payne Park as the lone viable site for a new music hall within city limits as the organization plans to relocate from its current primary venue on the bayfront. Although the city initially rejected a proposal to use seven acres in Payne Park for an orchestra facility, the City Commission reversed course this year, empowering staff to include parkland in its negotiations with McKenna.
In June, McKenna said the orchestra considered Payne Park to be “off the table,” citing legal issues and questioning the city’s openness to allowing the orchestra to use a portion of the property. At the time, city officials expressed optimism the orchestra was still willing to negotiate. On Aug. 29, City Commissioner Liz Alpert wrote a guest column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune encouraging residents to contact city leaders and the orchestra with their support for a music hall in Payne Park, characterizing it as a necessary step to retain a cultural organization that’s been in the city for more than 70 years.
In an email, McKenna said the orchestra has kept in contact with city administration since June. Despite any ongoing overtures, though, he once again said Payne Park is not an option for a venue — and the orchestra won’t pursue the site in the future, either.
“But again, to be very clear, the orchestra is not, and will not be seeking to build a music center in or around Payne Park,” McKenna said.
McKenna said the orchestra intends on staying within Sarasota County and hopes to conclude its site analysis work by spring 2022. In a statement Friday, the orchestra said it has not entirely ruled out the possibility of finding a site within city limits, but it said there appear to be no viable options at this time.
“Since Payne Park is not an option, and other locations we reviewed with city officials have all been ruled out, we are currently concentrating on opportunities in Sarasota County,” McKenna said in Friday’s statement.
On Thursday, a city spokesperson said the orchestra had not shared information about abandoning consideration of Payne Park as a potential home. On Friday, following the release of the orchestra’s statement, the city issued a joint statement from City Manager Marlon Brown and Mayor Hagen Brody acknowledging the orchestra was within its rights to move on if it so desired.
“Of the city locations previously offered and considered, including its current location on the bayfront and in or around Payne Park, the Sarasota Orchestra is clearly not open to those locations and desires to look elsewhere,” the statement said. “We wish the orchestra the best of luck in its relocation search and extend our continued offer to assist with any additional support with a location in the city limits that it may find suitable. That offer remains on the table.”
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Kelly Franklin, the founder of the Preserve Payne Park coalition, said she’s hopeful McKenna’s statement will bring some closure to a community conversation that’s gone unresolved for more than two and a half years. Following Alpert’s column, Franklin sent an email from the coalition encouraging subscribers to contact McKenna and ask him to either reduce the scope of the orchestra’s Payne Park request, consider different sites within the city or announce the organization will be moving elsewhere.
Although Franklin leads a group formed in opposition to the orchestra’s request for acreage in Payne Park, she has repeatedly expressed a desire to arrive at an alternate plan that all parties can find acceptable. She thinks that’s possible now if the orchestra has moved on from its initial proposal.
“I hope that it’s beginning of a good end for everyone,” Franklin said. “I have always very much wanted to see the orchestra stay in the city. This has never been about being anti-orchestra; it’s about being pro-park.”
Franklin and others have questioned the orchestra’s unwillingness to consider alternate site configurations adjacent to Payne Park or elsewhere in the city, noting that larger orchestras in bigger cities operate out of music halls on properties much smaller than seven acres. Downtown Friends of the Orchestra, a group of residents advocating for retaining the orchestra in the city center, identified three smaller sites on the edge of the park it considered suitable for a music hall, but the orchestra dismissed the possibility of downsizing.
McKenna said the orchestra’s planning process, conducted over several years, led to the conclusion that seven acres is necessary to accommodate a facility planned to include an 1,800-seat concert hall, a 700-seat flexible recital hall and space for rehearsal, education, storage and other operations.
City officials have said the orchestra has declined to divulge key details guiding its search for a new home. In a Sept. 3 email to Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, City Manager Marlon Brown said the orchestra had not provided reasons for rejecting suggested alternative sites within city limits.
McKenna said the orchestra was able to have an open, transparent conversation about Payne Park because it is a city-owned property. He said the organization has sought to maintain the confidentiality of other property owners it has engaged with, which is why there is less information available regarding other sites the orchestra has explored.
“As a private nonprofit, our focus is currently on privately owned parcels, so it would not be appropriate for us to comment publicly until the process to negotiate terms and determine site suitability is completed,” McKenna said.
Although a final answer on the orchestra’s future home may not be available until next year, McKenna said the organization would update the public on the site selection process at the appropriate time.
“We are as eager as the community to share news as soon as it is possible and we remain very committed to our goal of bringing a world class music center to our Sarasota community,” McKenna said.
This is a developing story and will be updated as information becomes available.