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Destined for dissolution?

The Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation should pull out The Bay Park Conservancy playbook. The foundation, city and county are not in alignment.

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The good news is the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation, formerly the Van Wezel Foundation, Monday pulled itself and the Sarasota City Commission and administration out of a big, troublesome, nasty jam. The foundation announced it would cover the $8.8 million cost of the architectural design concept for a new performing arts center.

Had it not done so, you pretty much could have concluded the reality of a new performing arts hall in The Bay Park was dead.

It still could be. The foundation’s commitment is keeping the project alive — but only for a short time. Unless …  

It’s not exaggerating to say there is a chasm as wide as Sarasota Bay separating two parties from the third — city officials and Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation on one side and the Sarasota County Commission far out to sea on the other.

The obvious observation from watching how this whole process is unfolding is this: The parties are not in alignment. At all. They’re not in alignment on the tax increment financing, to begin with; on the wording in the interlocal agreement between the city and county; on how the TIF money is to be spent; on the process under way; or, and this is the most crucial part, on the overall vision, objectives, ambition and the why of the project. 

Unless the parties are brought into alignment, the results are predictable: intractable disagreement, dissension and distrust; lack of will; and, inevitably, dissolution. The bad feelings and scars last for years, often decades.

This pronounced dis-alignment was on full display April 24, when the five members of the Bay Park Improvement Board met to consider a request from the city administration for approval of $44 million to fund the architectural portion of the project. 

That amount came from standard 24% architectural and engineering estimates of the total cost of a project, whose hard costs originally were estimated to be $185 million. 

City Manager Marlon Brown told the improvement board members that, actually, only $8.8 million was needed for the first architectural phase — the design concept, which in turn would lead to a projection for the entire cost of the new hall.

What’s more, of that $8.8 million, only $4.4 million would be needed from the TIF funds — $2.2 million of which would come each from the city and county, the other $4.4 million from the foundation.

Brown said he was asking for the full $44 million so the city would not have to seek approval from the improvement board and the city and county commissioners for each architectural step along the way. Moreover, he said the process could be terminated along the way, so the full $44 million was not at risk.

These assurances didn’t matter. County Commissioners Mark Smith and Ron Cutsinger were and are steadfastly opposed to spending any of the county’s money on the architectural design concept. 

Smith wanted to wait for the final report from the Purple Ribbon Committee, which is tasked with determining whether the Van Wezel can be renovated and flood-proofed. The city gave the committee two years (August 2025). Its chairman told us Monday it has no timeline or deadlines and may or may not need more time.

Cutsinger said he opposed any spending until he knew the total cost of the project. 

Brown and board members, Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert and city Commissioner Debbie Trice, pointed out the conundrum: You cannot find out the total estimated cost until the architect performs the architectural concept.   

The logic didn’t matter. There was impasse. At which point Improvement Board member Jon Thaxton broke the tension and painted what could be a 3-foot-by-3-foot portrait of this situation — a painting on the verge of being slashed and shredded.


“I am going to vote in favor of this … This motion will likely pass (the Improvement Board) with a vote of 3-2. But you still have to get a 3-2 vote at the County Commission. 

“Let’s assume that you’re going to get a majority vote at the City Commission. And we know that we have a county commissioner who is not a part of this vote and who has voted pretty much in opposition to everything that has been brought forward with this project (County Commissioner Mike Moran). 

“So that’s a 3-2 vote potentially to deny, if not 4-1 or 5-0. 

“I was a part of the discussion when this TIF was first agreed upon … on Day One when this project started almost 12 years ago. It took a lot of work to build that faith and trust between the city and the county to get this TIF approved. … I’m just offering a word of caution that we should consider not interrupting that hard-fought level of trust.”

The vote was 3-2 — Thaxton and the two city commissioners, Alpert and Trice, in favor of funding the architect; Smith and Cutsinger opposed.

That vote — and the entire Bay Park Improvement Board meeting — was a microcosm of what is ahead if the foundation and city and county commissioners do not align.

There is a way. 

The winning playbook exists: It’s The Bay Park Conservancy. 

Repeat it. 

Start at the beginning.

The Bay Park started with one man’s vision in 2013. Restaurateur Michael Klauber saw unlimited potential to transform 53 bayfront acres into “an iconic destination.” One man became three leaders and champions — Klauber; Virginia Haley, CEO of Visit Sarasota, and Drayton Saunders, Sarasota native and president of Michael Saunders & Co.

Their effort was initially dubbed Sarasota 20:20. They were small rocks thrown into a pond, but with ripples that spread far and wide throughout the city.

This is from a 2014 Bayfront 20:20 document summarizing its progress:

“Coalition of 20+ diverse organizations representing thousands of Sarasotans and supporting an articulated vision & long-term master plan for Sarasota’s Bayfront: 

i. Neighborhood organizations

ii. Cultural organizations

iii. Civic organizations

c. Outreach progress to-date:

i. Initial rounds of outreach to stakeholders

ii. October and November public meetings with 550 active participants

iii. 200 pages of written comments

iv. Social media outreach — 1,500 Facebook likes, etc.”

With the public embracing the vision, Bayfront 20:20 became the not-for-profit Bay Park Conservancy. And from there its leaders — Chair Cathy Layton and CEO AG Laffley — and influential board members committed hours upon hours upon hours crafting a to-the-dollar master plan and making a convincing and persuasive case to city commissioners. Crucial to the effort: They did it with palpable, persistent passion and commitment.

It worked. And it’s working. 

That is now the job of the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation — but on a wider, geographic scale. 

County commissioners bristle at using county dollars for a new performing arts center in the heart of the city of Sarasota — what good does that do Venice or North Port? 

But there are times when leaders must rise above their parochialism and politics. Fact is, whether it’s a renovated Van Wezel (not likely) or a new performing arts center, it always will be a regional destination, attraction and landmark. 

This is a 50-year commitment worth getting right. What’s more, this region has flourished culturally and economically from its rich and deep-rooted arts genealogy. We should want that to continue for the next generations.

Everyone can align with that.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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