While the Sarasota City Commission moves toward impaneling a committee to study how to preserve the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a wave of opposition to replacing the venerable building with a contemporary theater complex at The Bay is growing.
Commissioners held their initial discussion on the committee’s composition during their Jan. 3 meeting, but not before hearing from residents representing both sides of the argument.
The debate over replacing the Van Wezel dates back to 2016 when the Van Wezel Foundation — now called the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation — hired AMS Planning and Research, a Connecticut-based arts consulting firm, to assess the facility’s needs. It gained momentum later in the decade as plans for The Bay began to materialize for 53-acre city-owned property anchored by the Van Wezel.
Even as a task force appointed by the foundation and the city works toward selecting an architect to develop a design for the proposed Sarasota Performing Arts Center, opposition led by resident Kelly Franklin is gathering petition signatures via a website at keepthevanwezel.com.
Proponents say the Van Wezel is too small, antiquated and close to Sarasota Bay to weather storms, requires significant maintenance and upgrades, and lacks in significant features required of performing arts halls such as a center aisle, handicapped access and backstage space needed for modern shows.
Opponents of a new facility point toward the Van Wezel’s unique design, its historical significance, the $275 million-plus cost of the SPAC for which the taxpayers would be responsible for 50%, and something a new building can’t fix — falling within a 90-mile touring show blackout radius from Tampa.
Van Wezel Executive Director Mary Bensel, a city staff member in that capacity, supports a new facility although she told commissioners she has no “no dog in the hunt” because she has no plans to stick around long enough to run the SPAC.
“God bless the Van Wezels for what they've done and what the city did back in those days, but we're nowhere near any standard for audience members at all,” she said. “I’ve watched seniors that go down the steps and up the steps, and these people fall down and I worry every night about things like this. There aren't enough elevators. We have to repurpose all of the elevators. There’s so much needed in this building.”
A center aisle and a 10-foot wall
Not as much is needed as Bensel and other proponents of the SPAC claim, said Franklin, who spoke to commissioners at that Jan. 3 meeting. She charged the City Commission in 2021 was not made aware of the full breadth of the data before committing to exploring a new facility.
“The City Commission was not provided with the Van Wezel Foundation’s 2016 report about geographic market constraints and the implications of our proximity to Tampa on Broadway bookings and seat capacity needs,” Franklin said. “The prior Commission also was not provided with the October 2021 Karin’s Engineering report attesting to the Van Wezel’s structural soundness, waterproof ability, ability to be updated technologically and reconfigured with center aisles.
Bensel took exception to such assertions she said have been circulating for more than a year.
“Marlon was specifically the person who asked me to have the study done,” Bensel said of City Manager Marlon Brown. "I even fought with him about it because I don't ever like to spend our money. I can also tell you that report was available to everyone. It wasn't concealed.”
Among the ongoing struggles Bensel cited in the Van Wezel are all of the systems such as power, chillers and plumbing; elevators and concerns about storm surge.
Backstage past its functional prime
Commissioners also heard a performer’s perspective from Alan Brasington, a retired Broadway actor who moved to Sarasota in 2014. Major shows, he said, will bypass Sarasota because the Van Wezel’s facilities are decades behind contemporary production standards.
Critical issues regarding production demands include lighting systems, an absence of balconies, and the center aisle that is necessary to minimize disruptions by patrons coming and going while performances are underway.
“The current facility does not have adequate backstage space to accommodate professional equipment, specifically lighting, sound and stage designs that are now a requirement for modern shows coming from Broadway,” Brasington said. “All that equipment has to be loaded back on trucks to be stored when it isn't being used, which makes the set-up of a show more complicated and much more expensive.”
Beyond artistic integrity, whether to eventually proceed with the SPAC rather than refurbish the Van Wezel to the extent possible is also a business decision. In its first year of operation, the new 3,000-seat, municipally owned Tanger Center for the Performing Arts in Greensboro, North Carolina generated an estimated economic impact of $23 million to the city for two Broadway touring performances alone, “Wicked" and “The Lion King.”
In all, the facility hosted 203 events and 415,421 patrons in its first fiscal year, which was 10 months long.
At $94 million, though, the price tag for the Tanger Center was less than the estimated $275 million for the SPAC. At 105,000 square feet, it’s also 60,000 square feet smaller than the proposed SPAC, and its only function is that of a theater. The SPAC plan includes education, event and rooftop spaces.
“I've heard plenty of opinions about how the current facility is good enough, but I believe that the arts form the life blood of Sarasota’s economy and quality of life, and that our residents and visitors deserve the kind of quality entertainment they should expect in a city of the arts,” Brasington said.
Taking the contrary point of view, Franklin said, “It is time to cease and desist the ill-considered partnership with a 3-year-old Foundation. Please focus our civic energies and resources instead on what it will take to maintain, protect and respect Sarasota’s purple heart and cultural soul.”