The Big Picture

Sarasota’s Arts Facilities Are Changing. Here’s a Look at Where They Stand Now.

From The Sarasota Players' new home at Payne Park to the current status of the Sarasota Performing Arts Center, there's a lot going on in the arts scene.

By Kay Kipling November 27, 2023 Published in the November-December 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

The Payne Park auditorium

The Payne Park auditorium

Two years ago, we wrote about a handful of planned arts facilities projects that were out to transform our cultural scene. As you might imagine, a lot can change over the years—and it has. Because of the challenges of logistics and fundraising, shifts in goals and strategies and all the other things that can happen to a project over time, many of the plans for those facilities have changed shape or even been scrapped and replaced altogether. Let’s take a look at where they stand now—with, of course, the caveat that more changes may still come. 

The Sarasota Players

Two years ago, Sarasota’s longest-running community theater was still planning on building a new home in Lakewood Ranch’s Waterside Place after the demolition of its former space on North Tamiami Trail. It represented a huge move for the organization—one that was then estimated to cost more than $25 million.

Fast forward to today. After calling a halt to the Lakewood Ranch building and giving up on the idea of a proposed home at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, which The Bay nonprofit currently oversees, the newly rebranded Sarasota Players is moving forward with the renovation of another city property—the Payne Park auditorium on Laurel Street downtown.

Why? Brian McCarthy is a Players board member and the chief executive officer of the wholly owned subsidiary nonprofit The Stage at Payne Park, which will 
lead the renovation project. “The first thing that changed is our board of directors changed,” he says. “They felt that our home and roots are in downtown Sarasota. That’s where our patrons are, and our donors. Lakewood Ranch was too far afield of where we should be.”

McCarthy says that after looking at the Municipal Auditorium site didn’t work out, “We backed off and said, ‘How about Payne Park?’ We had unanimous consent from all the city commissioners for us to lease that facility over a 30-year term. Part of that agreement is we’re going to remodel that facility. It’s in need of a lot of work.”

The Stage at Payne Park will lead the charge on that renovation, which is estimated to cost between $8 and $9 million. (The Sarasota Players will match dollar for dollar up to $4 million in the capital campaign launched in September, using funds from the sale of its former property.) McCarthy emphasizes that the theater will primarily be using the space about five months of the year for its main season of plays. That leaves plenty of dates available for other organizations to use it.

“We have about 15 organizations interested in discussing this with us,” he says. Among them, as of press time, are the Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota, the Jazz Club of Sarasota, Key Chorale, SaraSolo, the Sarasota Jewish Theatre and The Pops. “We need to review what their requirements are, but we’re talking more than just theater—music, dance and so on,” says McCarthy. “We can all save by sharing services—ticketing, buying media, office space and a conference room, for example. Since we would only be using the auditorium 40 or 50 percent of the year, the other percentage could be used by others.” McCarthy stresses that the theater project will be handled “in a respectful manner that doesn’t disrupt current uses of tennis courts, the playground and trails.”

The Stage at Payne Park has already selected an architecture firm—Fleischman Garcia Maslowski—to lead the design process. In addition, Stages Consultants has been hired to serve as the project’s theater, audio-visual and acoustics consultant. Construction is expected to begin in March 2024, with an estimated completion date in summer 2025. The space is planned to be flexible, with 299 mobile or collapsible seats, and perhaps three studios for rehearsals and classes. At press time, the Stage had just hired Michael Ayres as executive director and vice president of advancement to head the fundraising campaign.

Sarasota Orchestra 

The future home of the Sarasota Orchestra on Fruitville Road

The future home of the Sarasota Orchestra on Fruitville Road

A project much longer in the planning, but also moving forward, is a new music center for the Sarasota Orchestra, which has long wanted to build its own home, purpose-built as an acoustically welcoming concert hall, rather than working around available performance dates at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The orchestra closed on its new site, at 5701 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, at the end of April, paying $14 million for just under 32 acres of land.

That means things have been heating up over the past summer, says Sarasota Orchestra chief executive officer Joe McKenna, with the hiring of acoustician and theater planner Stages Consultants (the same company The Sarasota Players have hired). With Stages Consultants in place, the orchestra can also move to secure a design architect, assisted by the Dallas firm Garfield Public/Private. Chicago-based philanthropic adviser Grenzebach Glier and Associates is also working with the orchestra’s team on fundraising.

“Several years ago, we built a model of spaces included in the center,” says McKenna. “Once we closed on the land, we went back to revisit that, to see what might need to be modified.” The new center will be home to an 1,800-seat concert hall, a 700-seat flexible-use space, rehearsal and practice rooms and music storage and office spaces.

Samples have been taken at the site to get a sense of what the ambient sound around it—road and air traffic, etc.—is like. And McKenna says, “Our philanthropic adviser is assisting in gathering insights in the community, what people are interested and committed to the project, to help us make sure we have all our ducks in a row. By the end of the year, we should have everything in pretty clear focus.”

McKenna says there is no firm figure on building costs at this point. “That’s part of gathering insights from donors,” he says.

“Because we had the benefit of traveling to visit some music centers, like in Nashville, for example, we are finding the lessons they’ve learned,” McKenna says. “What we heard from every community we visited is that with a project like this, you’re doing it for the first time. The west coast of Florida doesn’t have a purpose-built concert hall. So the folks in Nashville said the goal is to help the community, do something even better than what we’ve done, and then someone will come and visit your new music center in five years and you’ll pay it forward.”

As with The Sarasota Players, part of the music center planning has involved engaging with other organizations to see how it might fulfill their needs, too. “When we look at how the Sarasota-Manatee region has grown in the last 20 years, and what this community is anticipated to grow into in the next 25 years, we found there was a need for that 500-900 or 1,000-seat space,” McKenna says. “The planning for that secondary space developed from our conversations with other music organizations.”

The location on Fruitville will be in the center of what’s going to be the greater Sarasota-Manatee area, McKenna argues. Plus, he says that when the orchestra submitted its plan to Sarasota County government, “We had to demonstrate that we could park enough cars if both spaces were being used at the same time. That’s the benefit of 31-plus acres. We can accommodate the parking required.”

No determination has yet been made about the orchestra’s present home, the symphony center near the Van Wezel. “That question will be sorted out later in the process,” McKenna says. 

Sarasota Performing Arts Center

A rendering of the Bay

A rendering of the Bay

Perhaps the biggest—and certainly the most talked-about—project in the works is the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center, which is slated to be built on bayfront land near the Van Wezel, as part of the overall Bay site. With a projected $275 million price tag, funded by a 50-50 public-private partnership between government (including Tax Increment Funding) and philanthropy, the center is, as Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation board chair and interim chief executive officer Jim Travers puts it, “generational” in scope. Current thinking calls for 50 to 70 years or more of service and plans for reaching out to people of all ages.

As with any project this size, there have been changes and hiccups along the way. Former chief executive officer Cheryl Mendelson stepped down from her position last spring. Travers says a national search for her replacement is underway, and he hopes that the role will be filled by the end of the year. More recently, after the announcement of the choice of famed architectural firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop to design the center, a final contract between the firm and the city remains in negotiations, as of press time. (Two other firms, Foster + Partners and Snøhetta, were among other possible choices for architect if those negotiations are not successful.)

Beyond that, of course, there is the uncertainty about the future of the Van Wezel, which has stood on the bayfront for more than 50 years and is considered a landmark. While Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation leaders stress that they don’t want the hall to disappear, if the new center opens (with an approximately 2,200-2,300-seat main hall), the Van Wezel would not be allowed to compete as a presenter of performing arts. Board member Nanci Weaver, whose focus is on ongoing and future education projects, suggests that if the Van Wezel is found sustainable, expanded education programs might be hosted in the older hall.

The need for a larger hall has long been discussed, since the Van Wezel has not been considered competitive with Tampa’s Straz Center when it comes to booking big Broadway shows like Hamilton (which finally arrives in Sarasota this season years after it first played in Tampa). Travers says that most producers of shows like Hamilton simply weren’t interested in looking at Sarasota as a spot on their tours, because they can’t earn enough revenue in a 1,700-seat hall like the Van Wezel.

For the moment, the Sarasota City Commission has selected a seven-member panel to explore the future of the Van Wezel, including members with experience in engineering, preservation, climate and theater design. Citizens behind a “Keep the Van Wezel” website suggest that the current hall could still be adapted and upgraded to protect it from long-term flood or storm surge damage, for millions less than a new center would cost.

Another possible issue for the proposed new center: parking. While that is, Travers says, a function for the city, not the foundation, to provide, it seems clear that a number of parking spots would be offsite—a situation, he says, that holds true for most other performing arts halls in Florida. Weaver sees the need for moving visitors to the center as an educational opportunity, saying “a shuttle bus could begin your experience of music or art in the transport itself.”

As with the orchestra’s music center, major fundraising efforts will be timed closely to the choice of an architect and a design. While the foundation has already had two major gifts of $10 million each to start the ball rolling, “major donors will want to know the vision for design,” Travers says.

And That’s Not All

Two other major projects have also moved along in recent years. Mote’s new Science Education Aquarium (SEA) at Nathan Benderson Park, which broke ground in November 2020, is anticipated to be complete in December 2024, according to Mote’s website. Set on 12 acres, the aquarium will feature various coral reef formations, sharks, rays, sea turtles and more, with a 400,000-gallon Gulf of Mexico habitat, and is expected to welcome 700,000 visitors a year.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ downtown campus, meanwhile, will welcome visitors to its transformed site by the end of the year or very early in 2024. Phase one of its renovation and expansion includes a new welcome center and a plant research center with herbarium and lab, along with a research library and the Living Energy Access Facility (LEAF), providing parking, a gift shop and a garden-level restaurant, capped with a 50,000-square-foot solar array to make it the first net-energy-positive botanical garden complex in the world. The cost of phase one is $51.6 million, almost all of it privately funded. Coming later in phase two, now in the planning stage, are a new sustainable glass house for living collections and an indoor-outdoor learning pavilion, while phase three will include the unification of pathways, work on decks and seawalls and a restoration of the historic Payne Mansion, which houses the Museum of Botany & the Arts.

Head spinning? Understandable. One thing those involved with all of these projects seem to agree on is that the Sarasota of the future will be very different from the one we now live in. More people are coming to visit or to stay, and they will be hungry for the arts, wherever they find them. 


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