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The $350 million journey

The Sarasota City Commission took the bold step to commit to funding 50% of a new performing arts hall. It better focus next on public support.

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Given the support that comes from the barrier islands of Longboat Key, St. Armands Key and Lido Key for Sarasota’s cultural arts, Longboaters and the homeowners on the barrier islands have a material interest in the city of Sarasota’s efforts to develop a new performing arts hall.

After all, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, or more specifically, what occurs inside the hall, is one of the main attractions for many of the people who have second, third or fourth homes on the barrier islands.

So, Monday afternoon’s Sarasota City Commission meeting was a  noteworthy milestone — for the entire region. The commission voted 3-2 in favor of signing an agreement that “lay[s] the foundation” for a financial and operating partnership between the city and the not-for-profit Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation Inc. to develop a $300 million-plus performing arts hall on the grounds of what is now the Bay Park, site of the existing Van Wezel and surrounding 50 acres.

This was a huge deal for the city. As Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch pointed out, it will be the biggest financial undertaking and commitment for one project in the city’s history. And rightly so, Ahearn-Koch emphasized the importance of the city commission getting the details right.

Ah, yes, the details.

It’s rare when we have sided with Commissioner Ahearn-Koch, but in this instance, she and Mayor Erik Arroyo had valid misgivings about approving the agreement. They were the two negative votes.

One of the primary misgivings was the fact the agreement states: “Co-funding for the … performing arts center shall be a 50% contribution between private philanthropy and a 50% contribution from public funding sources, which shall be outlined in a mutually agreed upon Implementation Agreement.”

This says taxpayer money will be used to fund the hall. As outlined in the agreement, that could include “funds budgeted by city”; federal, state and regional funding; future tourist development tax/penny sales tax revenues; “other local/regional sources (Sarasota County, Manatee County, etc.)” and allocation from the tax increment financing already in place for Bay Park.

Public funding also could include the city financing its share by issuing revenue bonds that would be paid off from the ticket revenues generated from the center. But that source triggered concerns for Ahearn-Koch and Arroyo.

What if the ticket revenues are not enough to cover the debt payments? From where would the money come?

City Finance Director Kelly Strickland said repayment could not come from property taxes, nor could the city raise its millage rate to cover these debt payments. That’s a relief.

But the deficiency, she said, would have to come from the city’s general fund sources: fines, communications tax, franchise fees and other taxes. And here’s the catch: If money is drained from the general fund, City Manager Marlon Brown said the effects could result in cuts in some services.

Ahearn-Koch and Arroyo, acutely aware of the financial commitment,  balked particularly at the proposal being a binding agreement. Arroyo, a lawyer, said if he represented a client in this situation, he would advise not signing it and instead would prefer a nonbinding letter of intent. Ahearn-Koch was more adamant about revising the proposal in numerous places.

But they did not prevail. Commissioners Liz Alpert and Hagen Brody and Vice Mayor Kyle Battie instead urged the commission not to do to the Performing Arts Center Foundation what the commission and city did to the Sarasota Orchestra: delay, delay, delay until the orchestra ultimately decided to leave the city. Be bold, Battie urged.

Two members of the Bay Park Conservancy, developers of the Bay Park, tried to ease concerns, making the case that the agreement was a repeat of the same type of agreement and path the commission signed with the conservancy.

All sides had valid positions.

But now, what is done is done. The quest for a new performing arts hall is moving forward. The next step is an implementation agreement, which will require far more specific details that, no doubt, will trigger excruciating debate.

In the fog of Monday’s discussions, while commissioners understandably focused on the agreement’s wording and fear of losing out, they made comments about the risks for the city and taxpayers. Before they proceed to crafting an implementation agreement, it would behoove both sides — the city and the performing arts foundation — to educate city taxpayers.

Post a detailed FAQ, hold public town halls, give taxpayers the opportunity to ask questions and understand what it means for them, and show them the flow of money. Before the Bay Park plan became reality, its board and proponents spent months meeting with Sarasota citizens explaining the vision, listening to feedback, building community support.

There is little debate the iconic Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is reaching the end of its life and a next generation facility is necessary for the next 50 years.

Given the importance, size and scope of this project, Sarasota city taxpayers — as well as the residents of the region at large — deserve to know as many details as possible before this project reaches the point of no return.



Matt Walsh

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

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