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Repurposing questions remain as Van Wezel panel takes summer break

Among the topics of discussion by the Purple Ribbon Committee is converting the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall into convention and event space.
Among the topics of discussion by the Purple Ribbon Committee is converting the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall into convention and event space.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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With just more than a year to deliver its recommendations to the Sarasota City Commission, the panel studying the potential repurposing of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is heading into a summer hiatus.

When it convenes again on Aug. 20, the Purple Ribbon Committee will have 12 months to complete its work. Its city-appointed facilitator has urged the group to consider increasing its meeting frequency beginning this fall.

Following its once-monthly meetings in August and September, Jim Shirley told the committee at its May 21 meeting that it will be armed with more details and data from the city’s many performing arts groups about their potential needs, and from Visit Sarasota County regarding inquiries about convention space should the PRC’s suggestions include such adaptive re-use potential.

“By then we will have gathered a lot of information that we don't have right now,” Shirley said. “At one of those two meetings, we will begin determining do we need to go twice a month if we need to. Is that workable for you because we're not limited, but we want to be prepared to get our work done.”

Shirley’s suggestion was met with a tepid response — many of the members’ professions require considerable travel and looping them in virtually isn’t an option. But it wasn’t dismissed outright as he tabled that matter for discussion at a later date.

Among the information that will become available later this year is a detailed engineering study of the Van Wezel, a critical element to determine the viability of retaining it in another form should the city move forward with a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center. 

The City Commission recently agreed to terms on a design agreement for the SPAC with Italy-based architecture firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop. A concept design and cost estimate for a new performing arts hall is due Nov. 30. Currently estimated at approximately $275 million, the refined cost projection could determine if the SPAC will be built.

Jennifer Jorgensen, the city’s director of governmental affairs, told the committee negotiations between the city’s procurement personnel are underway with an engineering firm with a familiar name to study the Van Wezel’s viability.

“They have ranked their first top three candidates,” Jorgensen said. “Karins Engineering is that first-ranked vendor and they're currently in negotiations. If they come to an agreement, then they will move forward.”

Karins Engineering of Sarasota was the firm commissioned by the city to produce a a study in 2021, which is often cited by supporters of a movement to keep the Van Wezel as the city’s primary performance hall. This next study will take a deeper look at the building under the lens of repurposing rather than renovating and expanding.

That report projected a price of nearly $47 million to raise the roof to accommodate a balcony and increase seating by more than 600 seats to 2,400 total, other miscellaneous renovations, and floodproofing. About 70% of the building is below the 15-foot base flood elevation.

Flooding concerns will remain should the Van Wezel be repurposed, and the cost of renovation and reuse adaptation will be a determining factor.

Conventional considerations

The PRC has already heard from several organizations and individuals about possible new uses for the building, ranging from immersive art space to an extreme sports venue to a more intimate performance space with a flippable floor to convert seating into a level event space floor.

“We mentioned at our last meeting that (convention space) was one of the things that we feel like we need to know more about as a committee, and you need to know more about is what's out there now,” Shirley said of developing an inventory of regional convention/event space venues. “With the presentations that we've had and the discussions that we've had, things have popped up like a convention center. Things have popped up like a place to have galas and other types of community events that could really enhance the city as we move forward.”

Committee member David Rovine said it is important to not only know the number of convention centers that exist in the region, but the types and sizes of the facilities as well, plus data from Visit Sarasota County regarding the number of inquiries it receives for convention and event spaces. 

That, Shirley said, will be included in a report from Visit Sarasota County in August or September. 

“A convention center in 1989 is not really what a convention center may be today, and we need to get our mind wrapped around that, not to make a final conclusion, but to have information so that we can factor that into our thought process.” Shirley said.

Under the umbrella of future discussion are the needs of the county’s arts and cultural organizations and how a repurposed Van Wezel might serve them. Shirley said Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County CEO Brian Hersh is assembling details from all of the organizations under the ACASC advocacy umbrella. That will be presented to the PRC in August or September as well.

“Brian and the organization have indicated that they want to work with us,” Shirley said. “They're going to put together a questionnaire, a survey of the arts organizations about what their sizes are, what their needs are, etc. And then they're going to be convening some meetings with various arts organizations to get a grip on what's real and what's not real and right now.”



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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