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Second suitor emerges to lease Payne Park Auditorium

Hispanic/Latino organization UnidosNow pitches the city on a proposal to occupy the city-owned building as The Sarasota Players' plan works its way through staff scrutiny.

A site map of the proposed expansion of Payne Park Auditorium shows the existing building in gray and the new structure in yellow surrounded by 59 parking spaces.
A site map of the proposed expansion of Payne Park Auditorium shows the existing building in gray and the new structure in yellow surrounded by 59 parking spaces.
Courtesy image
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Even as The Sarasota Players have begun the process of working toward approval of their plans to expand Payne Park Auditorium, a new player has entered the stage.

During its first meeting before the city’s Development Review Committee on April 17, The Stage at Payne Park, a subsidiary of The Sarasota Players, heard of plenty of issues to be addressed prior to its next round before the panel of city department representatives. 

But in the days prior another local organization, UnidosNow, submitted notice to the city that it has plans to only renovate the existing building whereas The Stage plans to triple the size of the structure, rendering the existing facility as backstage and office space.

For the time being, though, UnidosNow will have to wait its turn.

Former Sarasota city commissioner, mayor and UnidosNow board member Kelly Kirschner has submitted an unsolicited proposal to lease the facility from the city. In an email to city officlals, he wrote, “Beyond serving as a vital hub for the Latin community and centralizing UnidosNow administrative offices in the auditorium, we would seek to partner with CreArte Latino to host Spanish-language theatrical performances and educational events open to the entire community.”

A schematic drawing of plans for The Stage at Payne Park shows a 16,670-square-foot expansion connecting the existing building (top) to new space where the main theater and special event space will be located.
Courtesy image

As the city has already agreed in principal to a lease with The Sarasota Players — formerly The Players Centre for Performing Arts — pending approval of its plans, City Manager Marlon Brown responded to Kirshner in an email that the process of approving or denying plans proposed by The Stage must first work its way through approval or denial. 

Presuming it receives full DRC sign-off, plans for The Stage will go before the City Commission for consideration.

“Just a heads up that this discussion should just center only on if the negotiations with the Players fall through,” Brown wrote in an email to Kirschner. “(City Attorney) Bob Fournier will have to weigh in on the discussion since we are in the middle of discussions and negotiations with the Players since this was directed by the City Commission.”

Meanwhile, civic activist Kelly Franklin pressed Fournier in an email on when the city may entertain the UnidosNow proposal. Fournier responded that there is no set due date for The Stage’s application, no set date for when the City Commission may discuss a final plan and vote on either the lease or the major conditional use and site plan. 

The commission has final say as Payne Park Auditorium is zoned Government.  

“I would think that the major conditional use/site plan would have to be approved prior to consideration of a lease, although both matters could be discussed at the same meeting,” Fournier wrote to Franklin. 

For now, though, there appears to be no appetite for halting the process with The Stage, which was formed by Sarasota Players to raise funds, plan, build and operate the facility.

“If the City Commission is not willing to consider the expanded proposal, then perhaps the applicant should be made aware of that now before they are put to the time and expense of preparing, submitting and processing their application only to ultimately be denied,” Fournier wrote. “On the other hand, if the City Commission is open to consideration of the expanded proposal, then it might be advisable to provide clarification to the city manager that he still has authorization to consent to the filed application for development approval on city-owned land.”

Franklin’s objection to the expansion proposal is, in part, that it violates the deed restrictions of the park deeded to the city in 1925 by Calvin and Martha Payne. That was under the premise that the land be used for “a park, playground and kindred uses and for no other purpose.” 

Whether an expanded auditorium onto green space is considered a “kindred use” may be subject to interpretation. And there is precedent. Payne Park Auditorium was built inside the park in 1962.

Site plan challenges

In its first meeting with the DRC, plans presented by The Stage met several obstacles that must be overcome prior to DRC sign-off. Some were minor — missing calculations for bicycle and handicapped parking, stormwater retention area documentation, demonstration of adequate waste container facilities, etc. 

Others were more complex. Turnaround capacity for fire equipment was deemed inadequate, two water lines run perhaps beneath the planned expansion and must be relocated, and a grand tree that stands where the north side of the expansion would be built must remain.

“We’ve looked into trying to move some of the structure,” said project consultant Marty Black, who was a key player in building the Atlanta Braves spring training complex in Wellen Park near North Port. “We’ve got the utility mains that are close to the south side, so maybe we need to have a discussion on how to do that because the reclaimed water lines serve a good portion of the downtown area. We don’t necessarily want to shut down those lines to move them. That would be quite an impact to the community.”

Senior Arborist Donald Ullom, though, wouldn’t budge on the grand tree regardless of the effect on the building and utilities location.

“I’m loathe to allow the removal of a grand tree on city property when we're working so hard to maintain those, so we're going to ask for you to redesign,” Ullom said.

In addition to a resubmittal to the DRC, because the application shows an increase in intensity since the first community workshop in September 2023, a second session will be required.



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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