In this column in June 2022, we reported the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee had seen an opportunity in the event-space business.
With the impending closing of the Hyatt Regency to rebuild as a Hyatt-branded Thompson Hotel projected for October 2025, event venues in Sarasota that can accommodate more than 500 people were going to be limited to the Circus Arts Conservatory, with 15,000 square feet; The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, with 12,000 square feet; and the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, with 10,000 square feet.
Now with events back in full swing and sold-out events like the Ringling College Library Association’s recent Town Hall Lecture Series with Congresswoman Liz Cheney that left people fighting for parking spaces at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the Jewish Federation has delivered with its new event venue — the Ora.
Spanning 30,000 square feet with five different venue spaces and more than 400 parking spaces, the Ora is located on the 32-acre Larry Greenspon Campus for Jewish Life in the Morganroth Event Center at 578 McIntosh Road in Sarasota.
The cost to develop the Ora is an estimated $16 million. The overall cost of the campus is $33 million, which includes renovating the federation’s headquarters, building its new day camp, Camp Yonnie, and the Chaifetz Holocaust Memorial and Education Center.
The ballroom, named Kaplan Community Hall, is 9,500 square feet and can be divided into three sections. The lobby is 2,300 square feet; the terrace room, 2,300 square feet; the gallery, 1,100 square feet; and the plaza, an outdoor event space.
Recently, the Jewish Federation announced that Michael’s On East as its exclusive catering partner at the venue. This marks the fourth venue to contract with the restaurant and catering company that has provided food and beverage for area special events and weddings for nearly 40 years.
Currently, Michael’s On East also has exclusive catering contracts with Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and its southern campus at Historic Spanish Point and the Sarasota Conservation Foundation’s Bay Preserve at Osprey.
Some event-scene observers are concerned that co-proprietors Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini are too ambitious taking on the Ora contract in addition to their own operations at the Michael’s On East restaurant and ballroom and Michael’s Wine Cellar.
Not only that, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens CEO Jennifer Rominiecki announced at its annual Chairman’s Circle Dinner Monday that its new 150-seat restaurant, The Green Orchid, which Michael’s On East will operate as well, is on track to open in February.
Mancini admits it normally would be suicide to open a restaurant and a new ballroom at the same time and immediately after the busiest October and November in the company’s history. But with 230 employees, including 30 chefs, overseeing 75 events a week is normal everyday business.
“We can do eight events in one day like it’s nothing,” says Mancini.
The Ora is a dream come true for Mancini, who has been involved with the project with the Jewish Federation since its development began three years ago. After watching events that started with 100 people outgrow the Michael’s On East ballroom, the Ora fills a gap.
“From an eight- to 1,000-person event, we have something for everybody now,” says Mancini.
With its central location, the Ora plans to be an event facility for everyone for all different types of functions. Events already on the calendar are an Indian wedding and two Christmas parties.
Deanna McGrath, the Ora’s director of business development, said many of the bookings are for business events. The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Awards will be held there in June.
McGrath said the official opening date for the Ora has been scheduled for April 1, but the federation has made so many exceptions with earlier events that the opening might as well be March 1.
One of those events includes the Observer’s own — “Hamilton vs. Jefferson: The Rivalry that Shaped America.” An educational lecture, Louis Masur from Rutgers University will moderate the discussion — from 10 a.m. to noon, Thursday, March 7.
“This is a community that loves culture, theater and music,” says Shep Englander, CEO of the Jewish Federation. “Without a Jewish Community Center, it has become the responsibility of the federation to provide a gathering place to bring people together for learning, sad times to mourn and happy times to celebrate.
“When we learned that there was a great need outside of the Jewish community for first-class event space, in particular, event space that was large enough for 500 people, with an ease of entrance and exit and great security, we were fortunate to have the space and ability to build all of that into our community.”
Englander says not only will the Ora provide a gathering place for the Jewish community, but making it available for other groups to rent will also help pay for and maintain the campus.
“This town loves a fundraiser,” McGrath says. “It loves a gala.”
Sounds like our Black Tie section should prepare to cover a lot more.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the cost to develop the Ora.
Emily Walsh is the president of Observer Media Group and has served as publisher of the OMG’s Sarasota-based publications since 2016. She joined the company in 2001 as Black Tie photographer, later serving as editor of Black Tie and Arts + Entertainment, an advertising sales executive and chief digital officer.