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City names committee members to explore options for Van Wezel

The city of Sarasota is exploring future uses of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall once a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center is built.
The city of Sarasota is exploring future uses of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall once a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center is built.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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By the summer of 2025, a new committee will make a recommendation to the city on what to do with the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, presuming the Sarasota Performing Arts Center will replace it as the city's primary live entertainment venue.

On Monday, the City Commission appointed seven members to the Purple Ribbon Committee. They'll study the potential reuse of the 54-year-old, city-owned facility once the proposed SPAC is built in The Bay Park on the opposite corner of the current Van Wezel parking lot.

The seven were selected from a field of 29 applicants. Commissioners repeated often their appreciation for all willing to serve and calling each of the applicants qualified. 

Members were appointed by individual nominations by commissioners and a majority vote on each, but not before they heard from some regular voices imploring the commission to establish specific parameters for the group.

“This commission has not been clear on your expectations for the future of the Van Wezel,” said Sarasota resident Jose Fernandez. “It's clear that most of the people who've applied believe that this is a committee to save the Van Wezel, not to consider its financial viability given that the SPAC is going to be built and it will be competing with it. The first order of business is to provide the Purple Ribbon Committee with clarity about their deliverables as a group.”

Kelly Franklin, leader of an effort to keep the Van Wezel, agreed the purpose of the committee remains unclear.

“I agree with Mr. Fernandez that you should give a clear remit to this panel,” she said. “It’s unfair to everybody to keep the uncertainty going for too much longer. Mr. Fernandez assumes that a new $300 million replacement hall for the purpose the Van Wezel serves is going to be built. There's no reason to assume that on the basis of the agreement that the city has with the Performing Arts Foundation, which is to explore the feasibility of such a project. And that includes both needs, costs and where it might be located.”

The committee is structured to include at least two Sarasota residents, plus one each in five areas of pertinent expertise, none of which were required to be filled by local citizens. Six of the seven committee members are Sarasota residents.

During the nomination and selection process at least one applicant nominated by Jen Ahearn-Koch, Selma Goker Wilson, was also supported by Debbie Trice in part for her desire to keep the Van Wezel standing, but also for her background in theater architecture.

“In our conversation she made clear that she does not want us to kill the building and that it's very important that we keep it as a public benefit,” Trice said.

That set off a brief exchange with Vice Mayor Liz Alpert insisting the committee members bring no bias as to the future of the Van Wezel.

“I think adaptive reuse should be possible, but I think we need people who are open that, if it's not possible, saying it's not possible,” she said.

Defending her nominee, Ahearn-Koch said, “She 100% made it clear to me that she had no agenda, no preconceived notions and was happy to be part of a committee where they would discover and then as a committee, work through all of the details. So I don't think she's got an agenda.”

Trice then offered clarity to her comment.

“I didn't mean that not killing means we're going to keep it as it is,” Trice said. “It was more that we have invested in this as a public benefit, so whether adaptive reuse or whatever we need to maintain a public benefit.”

After the committee was selected, City Manager Marlon Brown assured commissioners it will be tasked to proceed with no preconceptions of the outcome.

“I will assure that again that the individuals who are appointed, when we do an orientation, are open-minded as to the end result and that no one really is beholden to conceived position,” he said. “We’ll make sure that is reemphasized as part of the being on this committee.”



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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