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Opposition grows along with theater's plans for Payne Park Auditorium

A rendering of an expanded Payne Park Auditorium designed by Fleischman Garcia Maslowski architects.
A rendering of an expanded Payne Park Auditorium designed by Fleischman Garcia Maslowski architects.
Courtesy image
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More than a year since the Sarasota City Commission approved a term sheet with The Players Inc. to lease and expand Payne Park Auditorium, amended language to the document is on the agenda for the commission’s July 15 meeting. 

With it comes a third iteration by The Players Centre for Performing Arts, now known as The Sarasota Players, that is significantly larger than the original concept presented in September 2023.

The agenda item calls for commissioners to consider requesting staff and the city attorney to prepare a lease agreement based on a revised term sheet that would allow The Players and its subsidiary, The Stage at Payne Park, to finalize due diligence, site plans and undergo the major conditional use process, after which staff will return to the commission with a lease agreement for consideration of approval.

The first concept for an expanded Payne Park Auditorium that was presented during a community workshop in September 2023.
Courtesy image

The Stage at Payne Park is a subsidiary created by The Players Inc. to act as its fundraising, development and eventual management arm for The Stage, as it is calling the planned expanded facility, which is intended to be available for use by other community performing arts organizations as well as to provide event space. 

A new two-story building of approximately 17,300 square feet would be attached to the existing auditorium and includes a 300-seat theater that can be arranged in multiple seating configurations. 

From a benign reception at the initial workshop in September 2023 to its reworked version, opposition to the plan for Payne Park Auditorium has been growing by whose who oppose the loss of 2.1 acres of green space to a new building, parking spaces and driveway access. 

Among them is the Alta Vista neighborhood, which borders the southeast corner of the park, whose leaders are rallying residents to oppose the plan.

“When it is a matter of both principle and law, there is no compromise,” neighborhood leadership wrote in an email to residents. “The Payne family’s intentions are clear and recorded in their deed to the City of Sarasota as a magnanimous gift to all of us residents in their explicit deed restriction: ‘Now and forever, that this land is to be a public park, playground, and for no other use or purpose.’”

Also, the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations has produced a position statement regarding commercial use of all city parks. In the statement, the CCNA resolves to "oppose any such use that diminishes free and public use of our city parks or is a liability on the surrounding neighborhood or the city. Any planned development to add to or change our parks should enhance the free and public use thereof and be an asset to the surrounding neighborhood and the city."

The city must also weigh the prospect of litigation by Payne family descendants to prevent building on deed-restricted park space it donated to the city.

Work in progress

On May 15, 2023, the City Commission approved a term sheet related to a proposed lease agreement between the city and The Players, Inc. for the Payne Park Auditorium. 

At that, representatives of The Players began developing a site plan for the leasehold. That planning included a community workshop, community focus group discussions, meetings with city staff and a pre-application meeting with the city’s Development Review Committee. 

Between the September 2023 workshop and December 2023, The Players expanded the concept site plan for the auditorium. Following an initial review by staff of its DRC application, The Players withdrew the application. That was followed by meetings with city staff to receive additional comments. 

In the interim, The Stage at Payne Park hired veteran fundraiser Michael Ayers as its executive director and vice president of advancement. Among his tasks is to raise the balance between the $4 million committed to the project by the Sarasota Players and the estimated capital cost of $15 million to $17 million for the renovation of the existing building and the expansion.

In March 2024, The Players filed for a pre-application meeting with the DRC and presented a third concept site plan, after which it altered the plan to address protection of existing grand trees and other technical matters such as fire truck turnaround space and utility lines relocation. 

The concept for Payne Park Auditorium presented by The Sarasota Players and The Stage at Payne Park to the city's Development Review Committee in March 2024.
Courtesy image

As a result of those changes, staff is now seeking the approval of a revised term sheet, which will eventually lead to a proposed lease agreement.

Proposed changes to the term sheet include increasing the leasehold area from approximately 1.6 acres to approximately 2.1 acres and increasing the value of the planned improvements from $1 million to $12 million, plus minor housekeeping language for clarification. 

The most recent proposed site plan for Payne Park Auditorium following comments from staff and the city's Development Review Committee.
Courtesy image

The Players would pay the city rent of $100 annually, plus $1 per ticket sold for each Players event. The Players will be responsible for all related expenses — capital repairs and replacement, interior and exterior maintenance, utilities, insurance and taxes. 

Any improvements The Players completes will be conveyed to the city at the end of the lease term, be that 10 years or 30 years following execution. 

The Sarasota Players has been searching for a permanent home since it sold its home on U.S. 41 in 2018 for about $9.5 million, with plans to build a new facility in Waterside Village at Lakewood Ranch. While those plans fell through, it has operated since 2021 in converted retail space at The Crossings at Siesta Key shopping center. 



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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