Now that the Sarasota Orchestra has closed on its 32-acre site on Fruitville Road, the 75-year-old organization is developing plans to build a new music center, a project intended to serve its needs for the next 100 years.
Last week, the orchestra completed the $14 million purchase from Wal-Mart Stores East LP of a vacant 32-acre site at 5701 Fruitville Road. It was a cash purchase, leaving the orchestra free to continue its fundraising feasibility study, which will guide its plans to design and build an 1,800-seat concert hall to specifically showcase acoustic music. Plans also include a 700-seat flexible-use performance space, multiple rehearsal and practice rooms, music storage and office space.
It will be one of only four concert halls for acoustic music in Florida, and the first on the Gulf Coast, joining New World Center in Miami Beach, Knight Concert Hall in Miami and Steinmetz Hall in Orlando.
The orchestra had first considered building a new facility in Payne Park near downtown, but once that was determined to be untenable it launched the search for a new site.
“There were several criteria. One was to be able to have enough acreage to achieve long-term goals,” said Orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna. "Another was the ability to build up to 110 feet in order to create a concert hall. You need cubic volume of space to create that acoustic, and that's really done by the width and height of the building.”
A conditional rezoning of the property will allow the orchestra to build to its desired height, which McKenna said is ideal for acoustical music.
The orchestra expects to finalize its project scope and timeline later this year, following the completion of a fundraising feasibility study, which is underway and will continue through mid-year.
The location of the inland site less than a mile west of I-75 also provides the benefit of protection from severe weather and more convenient access to the growth of the two-county area.
“It was with an eye toward removing the vulnerability that is associated with coastal locations. This particular site on Fruitville Road is a fantastic site. It's a great location,” said McKenna. "It really is the crossroads of the Sarasota-Manatee region as we look out over the next 25, 50 and 75 years. We're really excited at the prospect of a music center for the region that would be home to the orchestra, but also provide space for other music organizations in particular that are so in need of both rehearsal space and performance space.”
A five-year process
Currently the orchestra is using six venues in order to put together its annual schedule.
McKenna said owning and controlling its own facility will allow it to prioritize its schedule while still accommodating other music organizations.
“The orchestra is a highly collaborative enterprise. That won't change,” McKenna said. “We know that there are other music organizations that need performance space and others that might even need rehearsal space. This makes it more efficient to have an acoustical environment that's designed for music and then to really have that calendar flexibility. Our community has evolved and there's a need for a new venue like this.”
Concurrent with the fundraising feasibility study, the first step toward building the music center is hiring an acoustician and theater planner to provide the functional requirements to the project architect once selected. McKenna said that could occur by the end of the year. Once it is determined how much the orchestra can expect to raise via philanthropic efforts, the project cost can be determined and parameters provided to the architect.
The process from beginning of design to completion, he said, is five years.
“This analysis work will help us arrive at a campaign objective, and then the campaign timeline and all of the related details,” McKenna said. “These are once in a generation kind of projects. It's common for this kind of rigorous process to result in the outcome that you want, which is a first-class concept.”
The concept will include more than one-third of the site set aside and preserved for passive use. “Our vision is that about 12 acres would be held back for water features and natural areas so it has a really good sense of place,” McKenna said.
That place will be just more than 6 miles east of its current primary venue on Sarasota Bay, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. While removed from the downtown environment, the location is near the growing University Town Center area west of I-75 and Fruitville Commons east of the interstate just south of Lakewood Ranch.
The location will allow the orchestra to tap into the population growth from North Port through Manatee County.
“One of the things that really excites the orchestra about this is we see our region evolving and developing,” McKenna said. “When you think about what the Sarasota area will be, this location is really at the crossroads straddling the Sarasota-Manatee county line. “It will be accessible for audiences that are coming from the north, the south and the east, while at the same time we haven't disconnected from what has been our historical base.”
Room for everybody
The orchestra’s ambitions come during the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation’s philanthropic campaign to raise funds for its proposed $275 million-plus facility at The Bay, to replace the Van Wezel as the city’s primary theater.
Funding for the SPAC must be at least 50% private.
McKenna said a budget has not yet been determined for the new music center, but that there is room among the philanthropic community for both campaigns to progress simultaneously.
At 1,741 seats, the Steinmetz Center in Orlando, which opened in 2022, cost $240 million to build.
“We think there's room in the community for both organizations to be successful,” McKenna said. “Next year will be our 75th anniversary season. It's one of the leading orchestras in the Southeast. It's grown the Van Wezel’s calendar, and as a result of the success the Van Wezel’s calendar has become more constrained. This building first and foremost relieves the calendar pressure and since we're looking to go to a new space to raise the acoustical standard and play in a room that's designed acoustically for music, that’s a win-win for the whole region.”
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.