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Sarasota city commissioners approve a partnership with Van Wezel to build a new Performing Arts Center

Sarasota Performing Arts Center rendering
Van Wezel Foundation
The performing arts center will be the centerpiece of the redevelopment of the 53-acre bayfront into a cultural and economic hub called The Bay Park.

At an April 4 city commission meeting, the proposed partnership with the Van Wezel Foundation was approved 3-2. Opponents say there are aspects in the plan they don’t understand.

The Sarasota City Commission has voted to partner with the Van Wezel Foundation to design, finance, and create a new performing arts center.

The project is projected to cost around $300 million to $350 million, with half of the funding coming from private philanthropy and the other half from public sources.

At an April 4 commission meeting, the proposed partnership was approved by a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Erik Arroyo and Commissioner Jen Ahren-Koch voting against it.

Both said there were aspects in the plan they did not understand.

Arroyo said that the venture will cost a “lot of money” and he wants the commission to be able to get out of the deal if it does not end up panning out.

“It should be our goal as a commission to be able to back out of this agreement in the event that something happens to the bond, in the event that things don’t go according to plan, that they can’t raise the money they said they were going to raise,” he said.

City Attorney Robert Fournier suggested that there should be more details in the plan about who the money will go to and how it would be paid.

“The implementation agreement, when it comes back, should not only detail how that [the total project cost] was derived, but it should also spell out a schedule for the contributions and be clear when this money becomes due,” Fournier said.

If the agreement is not approved, he added, no site development plans can be submitted. He called this “protection” for the commission.

The performing arts center will be the centerpiece of the redevelopment of the 53-acre bayfront into a cultural and economic hub called The Bay Park.

Commissioner Jen Aheran-Koch expressed doubts about putting the performing arts center in that particular location.

“It [the area] can be reused, it can be reimagined, or it can potentially be reincorporated into the future of the Performing Arts Hall,” she said. “But the language [of this agreement] does not guarantee that and it also does not guarantee funding for that.”

Partners of the Van Wezel Foundation spoke in favor of the proposal and talked about what the foundation provides Sarasota.

“Van Wezel Foundation is leading the way for more than just a performing arts center, it’s also supporting thousands through no-cost programming, workshops, family engagement nights and school and main-stage performance access, regardless of ability to pay,” said Sarasota resident and Van Wezel educator Maria Schaedler-Luera.

“The foundation is not a new partnership — they’ve been (the city’s) partner for 35 years,” said Michael Klauber, co-owner of Michael's On East Restaurant & Catering, and a Bay Park Conservancy member who led the envisioning process for the redevelopment.

But others, like local resident Cathy Antunes, expressed concerns similar to those heard from commissioners.

“This goes too far,” she said. “It’s committing the city without actual numbers. Slow it down, do the study, get the numbers.”

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall will continue to operate until the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center is built. The city will create a blue-ribbon committee to determine the hall’s future.

The Van Wezel Foundation will also begin transitioning its name to the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation.

I am WUSF’s Rush Family Radio News Intern for spring 2022.