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Consultant: Van Wezel is ideal for niche performances and events

Whether as an intimate comedy venue or home for extreme sports, myriad options exist for repurposing, say consultants to Purple Ribbon Committee.

If the Van Wezel were to remain a performance venue, a consultant says it should have several hundred fewer seats and, for flexiblity, perhaps a flat seating floor.
If the Van Wezel were to remain a performance venue, a consultant says it should have several hundred fewer seats and, for flexiblity, perhaps a flat seating floor.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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For the first time since it began meeting in August 2023, Sarasota's Purple Ribbon Committee heard a presentation directed at its core mission to research and eventually recommend alternative uses for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Committee members heard from Lynn Singleton, president and CEO of Professional Facilities Management Inc., which has management, booking and consulting contracts with nine facilities in five states, including Florida. He is also the owner’s representative, in this case the city of Sarasota, with respect to the Purple Ribbon Committee’s work.

Singleton has a stake in the community as well. A dual resident, he has homes in Providence, Rhode Island, where the company is headquartered, and in Manasota Key. Among the facilities the company manages is the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers.

Alongside Mary Bensel, a city staff member and executive director of the Van Wezel, Singleton presented a list of options for repurposing the facility with a prime directive to complement — not compete with — the planned Sarasota Performing Arts Center should it be built just a few hundred yards away.

To accomplish that objective, Singleton encouraged committee members to imagine “a facility that creates flexibility and evolves with emerging trends so it's not static. If something comes along new, then you can adapt to that rather than start over again.”

In order to get that conversation started, Singleton and Bensel proposed options ranging from a niche performance venue to an extreme sports facility.

“The concept would be to right-size the seating and the ancillary space,” Singleton said. “If you went down to 1,000 or 1,200 seats you wouldn't be jammed up with in the aisles, concessions, bar areas, etc,” Singleton said. Less seating will attract a greater number of smaller shows such as comedians and, as Bensel pointed out later in the discussion, immersive theater that surrounds and involves the audience.

“What is really working in our industry right now, what I call the sweet spot, is comedy,” Singleton said. “People want to laugh. There's a chain of how the comedians work. They don't automatically play the big room. They start in a comedy club, then they go to a medium-sized facility and play to about 1,000 seats, and then they go to the big room.”

Another concept they introduced is flat flooring, which can accommodate performances as well as event space, the latter which is in short supply here. Such a floor, Bensel said, can actually be flipped to provide flexibility in uses.

“It’s a floor that literally flips so you can have it seated or being like a flat floor venue,” said Bensel. 

But that comes with a flip side, as it were. Bensel said she asked a friend who operates such a venue how many times the floor breaks down. “He said not that many, so that was my concern.” She added, though, that she was told the floor is flipped often.

Singleton was not an advocate of the floor-flipping concept.

“Candidly, I would not do it. It's very expensive, and you're supposed to be able to push a button and it happens. Well, nothing is ever that simple,” he said. “What I would do if I had a flat floor is I'd have chairs and maybe do some pretty cool risers, but flipping can be beyond expensive and you'd probably spend more time making it work than you'd ever imagine.”

As a performance venue, the PRC was urged to consider:

  • Right-size seating and ancillary space
  • Flat/flexible flooring and staging
  • Niche or diverse programming
  • A feeder venue to and from the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center
  • Options to capitalize on the bayfront

As an extreme sports venue:

  • Indoor sports
    • Rock climbing and bouldering
    • Skateboarding and BMX
    • Axe throwing
    • High ropes
    • Escape rooms
  • Outdoors incorporating the waterfront
    • Waterskiing
    • Kite surfing
    • Parasailing
    • Jet skiing
    • Kayaking

“The third idea is niche destination,” Singleton said. “It plays into the relationship that this community has with the circus and Ringling Brothers, and looking forward to that is you establish a venue so that several times a year you go in with them and promote through them, and there are other cirque organizations besides Cirque du Soleil. There's actually an excellent one in Broward County.”

The building could also serve as a meeting, function and exhibition venue for:

  • Galas, proms and receptions
  • Indoor festivals, trade shows, etc.
  • Function and performance venue supported by flexible spaces
  • Outreach and education opportunities

Shifting demographics should be a consideration when imagining the repurposing of the Van Wezel, presenting an opportunity to serve a wider swath of the region’s population. Committee member Selma Goker Wilson asked Bensel about trends in audience demographics that may help guide future discussions.

“We have some data that was done from 2010 to 2022, and 65-plus has grown,” said Bensel. “What decreased a little bit, by 2.3%, was the (ages) 35 to 49, but in the 20 to 34 age, it increased by 25.6%.”

Singleton also raised the prospect of converting the building into an outdoor shell perhaps, should the engineering work, preserving the iconic roof of the Van Wezel.

“If you did an outdoor shell, whether the one is there adaptable or not, it’s a lost opportunity to do outdoors in Florida on a bay that's a $10 million view,” Singleton said. “We always think about in-season here, but October and November are lovely, too.”



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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