- September 19, 2022
The six-year search for a new permanent home by The Players Centre for Performing Arts has taken yet another turn as the nearly century-old theater group has yet to persuade the Sarasota City Commission to agree to a lease-and-management deal for Municipal Auditorium.
The Players CEO William Skaggs told commissioners this week his organization and the Bay Park Conservancy have failed to reach a compromise that would allow The Players to occupy, renovate and operate the facility at 801 N. Tamiami Trail. By a 4-1 vote with Hagen Brody opposed, commissioners sent the matter back to staff for a second time with a new wrinkle — explore the city's Payne Park Auditorium as an option for the theater group.
The Municipal Auditorium is central to the Bay Park Conservancy's master plan of The Bay, 53 acres of city-owned land on Sarasota Bay between Boulevard of the Arts and 10th Street, anchored by the Van Wezel Performance Hall.
The Players has been seeking a new permanent home since it announced its intent to sell its former facility at 838 N. Tamiami Trail in 2016 and use the proceeds to help build a theater complex in the Waterside development at Lakewood Ranch. After multiple stops and starts, reductions in project scope and changes at the top of the organization, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch terminated the agreement with The Players in March when it learned The Players was in talks with the city to lease Municipal Auditorium. The group's former home has been demolished.
The Players performs in a makeshift theater in a former retail store at The Crossings at Siesta Key that it calls Studio 1130, a nod to the suite’s address.
At its May 24 meeting, commissioners recommended The Players meet with city staff and BPC leaders to craft a solution. On Monday, Skaggs reported that talks were at a stalemate.
Skaggs outlined a proposal outlining similar terms it proposed in March: a $100 a year lease, a commitment to invest as much as $9 million for repairs and upgrades and assumption of the $300,000 annual cost of staff and maintenance. In exchange, The Players would manage the facility and control booking and scheduling of its performances and other events at the facility for eight months each year, leaving The Bay May through August for programming.
In response, Bay Park Conservancy CEO A.G. Lafley told commissioners that The Players’ eight-month performance schedule would leave little room for long-standing events and private functions historically held there, and that a guiding principle of redevelopment of The Bay was to keep its assets open and accessible to the public.
“Every public park definitely wants size, scale and scope, and The Bay needs a viable facility to accommodate all of these different needs that park guests have,” Lafley said.
That viable facility for indoor programming needs is Municipal Auditorium. The city’s partnership with the Bay Park Conservancy includes an agreement that specifies future negotiations for a plan to transition programming of the auditorium to the organization.
“Making it a playhouse eight months a year and reserving it for those performing arts does, in fact, cut the community out of an awful lot of uses that they are enjoying today,” Lafley said, adding the Bay Park Conservancy’s schedule would be half of the year for paid events and the other half free and open to the public.
Scheduling conflicts notwithstanding, Commissioner Liz Alpert questioned the legality of leasing the auditorium to The Players given its loosely worded pact with The Bay.
“The second amendment in November says the BPC shall evaluate the future use and management of all existing city-owned and -operated or -leased buildings within The Bay park excluding the Symphony Center and Van Wezel,” said City Attorney Robert Fournier. “And then the implementation agreement does contain a provision that says the city and the BPC will propose separately a plan for transitioning the programming for the Municipal Auditorium, but that’s to be done only at the city’s request.”
The language, Fournier opined, does not rise to the level of a commitment and therefore provides the city latitude with regard to the Municipal Auditorium management.
More than the competition with the BPC for control of the building, The Players also has to overcome some hard feelings among the commission. Mayor Erik Arroyo pointed out The Players was intending to leave the city for Lakewood Ranch, and with the cancellation of that project wants to come back.
"The players left the city after selling land that was given to them by the city, and now they're saying they're going to come back and then they'll maybe invest in another city asset because it didn't work out elsewhere,” Arroyo said.
During the discussion, Payne Park Auditorium was included as a potential option. Albeit removed blocks from the vibrant nightlife of the bayfront area, it has the seating capacity The Players needs, although Skaggs said it would require considerable expansion to create enough backstage space for large productions.
“I could see Payne Park as a very viable option if they're open to it, and the terms would have to be more equitable to the residents of Sarasota,” Arroyo said.
Vice Mayor Kyle Battie floated the idea of The Players taking over at Payne Park and perhaps splitting performances between there and The Bay. The Players’ lease proposal did include staging smaller-scale summer performances at Payne Park Auditorium.
“You could have Players at the Park and have Players at the Bay,” Battie said.
Alpert said The Players’ presence there would further activate Payne Park and it would solve the problem of parking conflicts with the Van Wezel Performance Hall when both host simultaneous events.
“It would give you a place you know you could go and could be fixed up to accommodate your needs,” Alpert said. “It would solve the problem of the Bay Park Conservancy being able to have control over all of that property because it does trouble me to parcel it out because then there is not an overall vision that can be facilitated, which then ultimately could lead to the lack of success of this overall project.”
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch agreed, saying her primary concern with The Players’ management of Municipal Auditorium is continuity with the Bay Park Conservancy's management of the remainder of The Bay.
“Depending on the outcome of today, there could be other conversations to be had,” Skaggs said. “Payne Park has got real issues that we can't sit here and answer today. There are simply too many unknowns. We came here today with a solid plan about Municipal Auditorium and all that we can help bring to that.”
Brody, who has championed The Players’ cause and made a motion that was not seconded to accept its lease proposal, told commissioners they were “making a big mistake” by sending the matter back to staff.
“This is how arts and culture dies in this community. It's by 1,000 paper cuts,” he said. “I’ve seen it with Mote. I've experienced it with the orchestra. And I just implore you not to make the same mistakes of the commissions, including myself, of the past. Right now I guarantee there are developers in master planned communities that are listening to this and they'll be the first phone call that they make. It's up to us as elected officials to either keep that heritage for our community or lose it.”