Sarasota residents express concern over performing arts center plan
Tony Stone is concerned about the enduring legacy of his grandfather – the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Stone’s grandfather, Lewis Van Wezel, and his wife, Eugenia, donated a significant portion of the cost of building the iconic Purple Room. The couple supported the arts in Sarasota.
Stone, who lives in Bradenton, said earlier this year he learned from a friend that the fate of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall might be in jeopardy.
“It was shocking, I think,” he said. “We just assumed it was a rock, it was a solid part of our family’s legacy.”
Stone is one of many residents of the area who are concerned with the City of Sarasota’s plan to build, in partnership with the nonprofit Van Wezel Foundation, a new arts venue in Sarasota Bay, to be called the Sarasota Center for the Performing Arts.
The city has not yet decided what will happen to the historic Van Wezel hall. A recent contract between Sarasota and the foundation stipulates that the hall will not be allowed to directly compete with the new center, which has concerned some members of the community. But the CEO of the Van Wezel Foundation told the Herald-Tribune that the contract does not prevent performance art from taking place in the Purple Room.
Over the past few months, many members of the Sarasota community have voiced criticism of the project. Some have criticized the city’s plan for how to pay for the new center, which is expected to cost $350 million. Others believe the proposal does not respect the heritage of the Van Wezel family.
Those qualms will likely play a role in this year’s City Commission election, as the candidates who win will have a seat at the table in future decisions about the new performing arts hall.
A performing arts center in full transformation
The Van Wezel Foundation and the city envision the center as a “predominant destination” for the performing arts in the United States, said Cheryl Mendelson, CEO of the foundation. The building will be the centerpiece of La Baie, a 53-acre park which is being created on the Sarasota waterfront.
The Sarasota Performing Arts Center, or SPAC, will have a 2,250-seat main theater and 400-seat flexible performance and event space. It will also host educational programs and feature a lawn where people can watch movies or outdoor performances.
Project leaders said the current layout of the Van Wezel Building would prevent Sarasota from attracting national tours and Broadway shows in the future.
“We don’t want Sarasota and the area having to travel to Tampa or Orlando to attend a major presentation or tour that we would be able to host here in our own community,” Mendelson said.
The city will convene a “blue ribbon” committee to determine how the Van Wezel will be used once SPAC opens. City manager Marlon Brown said he plans to select committee members this winter.
Citizens raise financial concerns
In April, the city approved a partnership agreement with the foundation for the planning, financing, design and construction of the SPAC. Under the agreement, the city is responsible for half of the total cost of the project, or $175 million, and the Van Wezel Foundation is responsible for the other half. The nonprofit organization plans to solicit donations from individuals, foundations and corporations.
The city plans to pay for its half in a number of ways, including $50 million expected to come from the Waterfront Area Tax Increase Funding District. rising property values spurred by development improvements to other improvements in a neighborhood.
The city also plans to borrow money through a tax bond, secured by revenue from a certain project or source, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. In that case, Sarasota will use the revenue generated from the new performing arts venue — or the tickets — to pay off the loan.
But some have criticized this proposal. Ron Kashden, a certified public accountant and Sarasota citizen, said his analysis suggests ticket prices would need to rise significantly for the city to return the deposit.
Kashden considered several possible scenarios. Under one, tickets are expected to be twice as expensive as they currently are at Van Wezel — going from $74.54 on average to $149, he said.
“For a couple going to Van Wezel for $150 is very different from a couple going to Van Wezel for $300,” Kashden said.
But his analysis did not take into account state and federal funding, which the city hopes to receive to help pay for the project, according to the city manager. The state recently awarded Sarasota a $990,000 grant for SPAC, and it plans to apply for more.
The city also plans to use $6 million of local sales tax money on the project — if voters decide in November to extend the tax another 15 years.
These sources of funding would mean the city could borrow less than Kashden had estimated, meaning ticket prices would not be as expensive as he predicted.
Brown insisted he would not allow the ticket price to drop from $74 to $149.
“If that happened, I would no longer be the city manager sitting in that seat,” he said. “I wouldn’t allow that kind of thing to happen.”
Brown said the revenue obligation will be repaid through a supplement to SPAC tickets. Van Wezel customers already pay a few extras when purchasing tickets, including a $1 capital improvement fund fee, a $2 parking fee, and a $4 operating surcharge.
The city manager said he planned to be deliberate and careful with the SPAC project.
“I will not do anything that can endanger the city,” he said.
Van Wezel’s descendants are concerned about the SPAC plan
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall was built in 1968 and 1969 with money from a city bond and the Van Wezel bequest.
Katherine Van Wezel Stone, Lewis’ granddaughter, believes her legacy was to create a hall that would foster the performing arts and “also inspire other performing arts in the city”.
“I think that really sparked or helped spark a flourishing of the arts in Sarasota,” she said.
Katherine Van Wezel Stone and her brother, Tony Stone, said the Van Wezel Foundation and the city did not inform them of the Sarasota Performing Arts Center’s plans. Tony Stone said he was generally aware that a larger performing arts center was planned for the waterfront, but he was unaware of the April deal between the city and the foundation until until his friend tells him about it.
Katherine Van Wezel Stone said she read the agreement after learning about the plans.
“I was quite appalled that it really looked like the Van Wezel Hall was going to starve under this plan, it was really going to deteriorate under the plan,” she said.
The agreement states that once the new center opens, the Van Wezel must “cease its operations as a performing arts facility with respect to booking any program or activity that directly competes” with the new center.
But Mendelson, the foundation’s CEO, said that doesn’t mean the Van Wezel will be banned from hosting artistic performances.
Mendelson stressed that his organization has “the greatest respect for the legacy and the vision” that Lewis Van Wezel had for the Sarasota community.
“We are thrilled, open and happy to talk to the Van Wezel family,” she said. “We recently reached out to them to invite an open dialogue and meet, and would love the opportunity to share the vision for a future performing arts center.”
Katherine Van Wezel Stone said her grandparents were “very supportive” of the performing arts, so she would like the Van Wezel to remain that kind of center. But she noted that she could also see it being used as an art museum.
“If it wasn’t necessary for the performing arts, it could be a wonderful place for the visual arts,” she said.
“But I certainly think it’s a very important place,” she added, “and it really needs to be preserved as a contribution to the arts.”
Anne Snabes covers city and county government for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes.