Citizens deserve real answers on why Sarasota needs a new arts center
Recently, the city of Sarasota and a new non-profit organization agreed to a contract build a new performing arts center to replace the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. But it was clearly far too premature for the city to sign such an agreement.
The contract, which creates significant obligations for the city, was not competitively sought – and there was inadequate public review and debate before it was rushed through the City Commission of Sarasota on a 3-2 split vote. In reality, an undertaking of this magnitude should only happen with a community firmly united behind a plan that is proven to work.
The Sarasota Orchestra’s recent initiative to build a large new performing arts facility near Interstate 75 has significantly changed the environment from what it might have been a few years ago. Previously, construction of a new city-owned hall to replace the Van Wezel might have been conditional on obtaining collaborative joint use with the Sarasota Orchestra and others in need of a large hall. . Additionally, there could have been conditions in place to avoid building this large room on the waterfront, despite the aesthetic appeal of this location for high-end clients.
That was then, however, and this is now. And for now, a “no build” option is a safer route.
There is nothing in law or custom that says a city government the size of Sarasota should own or operate a performing arts venue. This is especially true given that the current competitive environment could place enormous strains on both initial fundraising and future operations.
The Sarasota Orchestra plans to build a facility that will serve the Greater Sarasota community, and it will no doubt seek to maximize its return on investment by trying to attract the type of events for non-orchestra dates that would overlap with preferred programming. by Van Wezel.
There is also a real chance that competition for the resources needed to build two large local venues simultaneously could cause the orchestra and the new performing arts center to cannibalize each other’s efforts – and seriously affect the ability of either to thrive in the long term. .
Finally, and what appeals to me most, the good work of the Bay Park Conservancy emerging on the waterfront is poised to produce a viable, defining feature of downtown – and without a huge new building overwhelming the site. It will be a wonderful green space that will attract and support much community use by ordinary people. And it won’t be a purely commercial site that may face an uncertain future.
I have great respect for the leadership of the Conservancy, but they continue to walk down a path they were forced to take years ago by a city commission that wanted the Van Wezel replaced. Now, however, there must be a realization that things have changed since then – and dramatically.
It would amount to civic misconduct for the city to downplay the many serious challenges that could undermine the feasibility of a new performing arts center – and, even worse, for the city to not have a strategic plan in place. to address these concerns.
It’s time to reassess things.
If such an undertaking is really feasible, the city should show to the public what detailed strategies he has developed to ensure the success of this plan. It’s not a strategy to just say, “We’ll get there one day. »
John Wesley White is a former Sarasota County Administrator. He resides in Sarasota.