It’s going to take more than a year longer than anticipated to develop an implementation agreement for the proposed new Sarasota Performing Arts Center.
That’s why leaders of the SPAC Foundation appeared before the City Commission last week seeking an extension of the deadline to present the proposed agreement, which was due this month, to the city. Commissioners voted 4-1 to grant the extension until November 2024, with Jen Ahearn-Koch opposed.
The vote followed the usual parade of public speakers both supporting and opposed, and a lengthy discussion that conflated the extension request with demands by Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Debbie Trice for further developed cost projections that SPAC Foundation officials and City Manager Marlon Brown said was needed in order to produce the numbers they want.
“You're asking for a number that we don't have here and we're asking for this extension to allow us time to get to that number,” Brown said, adding that if the projected cost exceeds the estimated $285 million then commissioners will have the latitude to not enter into the agreement. “This commission can say, ‘You know what, let's cut bait. Let's stop this process and let's not move forward. We're not spending $350 million.' That decision will come later and there's no commitment from this body to say we will spend those dollars.”
A task force appointed by the SPAC Foundation and the city is in the midst of a search for an architecture firm to design the new facility planned for the northwest corner of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall parking lot. Once the firm is selected and an estimated construction cost is available, the budget for the capital project can be developed and included in the implementation agreement to be considered by the commission.
The SPAC Foundation will select the architect. The commission will have approval authority of the contract to design the facility. The completed SPAC will be owned by the city and, as proposed, paid for by 50% tax dollars from the tax increment financing district on properties surrounding the The Bay park and 50% in private funding and grants secured by the foundation.
But that's not guaranteed. The TIF agreement between the county and city outlines that funding is subject to annual review nd approval at the county and city discretion. Per the ordinance and interlocal agreement, the county may provide funding for the TIF projects, but is not a requirement nor is it guaranteed.
Another point to be resolved is the language of a non-compete requirement of a repurposed Van Wezel Hall. Laura Hennessey, CEO of the SPAC, told commissioners the implementation agreement is not a unilateral process and will require the approval of the city and Bay Park Conservancy, which is responsible for development and operation of The Bay.
“There are nine elements that need to go into the implementation agreement,” Hennessey said. “The first seven components of that implementation agreement actually require the design architect to be on board, which isn't going to happen until this July. Several of those components, including a joint construction logistics plan and outline of responsibilities for the design and construction along with the Bay Park Conservancy. That will require very extensive collaboration with the BPC as well as the Van Wezel Hall and the city.”
Jim Travers, chairman of the SPAC Board of Directors, said the process of developing plans for the new facility has reached a critical juncture, and that the extension is a necessary step to keep the process moving forward.
“We're in the middle of architectural selection. We have a state appropriation of $1 million supporting that. I have a donor who pledged $10 million, partly because we have an agreement together,” Travers said. “The bottom line is the stakes are high. We stand on what we negotiated a year ago, and these terms are subject to the non-compete which we're willing to work toward and get that concluded as soon as we can reasonably do.”
Vice Mayor Liz Alpert also warned that stakes are high because there's real risk of losing the SPAC to a location outside the city.
“This is an extension. That's all it is,” Alpert said. “We are talking about the merits of what we already approved, and all of these other things will come. Why would we shut down this process now before the SPAC had time to get answers to all the questions we have? If we shut it down now, we'll have lost another important cultural facility in this city. The SPAC wants to build a new performing arts center. They’re going to build it somewhere. Let's hope it's in our bayfront and let's not lose it like we lost the orchestra.”
Alpert’s reference was to the Sarasota Orchestra, which after years of dissatisfaction with the acoustics in the Van Wezel, decided to build its own facility on 32 acres off Fruitville Road east of the city limits.
“Make no mistake about it, if we keep dilly-dallying and messing around and going back and forth with this, someone will approach the SPAC out in the county about building a facility out east,” warned Mayor Kyle Battie. "That will happen. That’s what happened with the orchestra.”