Sarasota Orchestra may have a site for new music center by spring

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Renderings of the Sarasota Orchestra proposed new concert hall located at Payne Park.  The City of Sarasota rejected the plan but is now reopening the idea of bringing it back.

Despite calls by city officials to renew talks with the Sarasota Orchestra to build a proposed music center at Payne Park, leaders of the symphony say they are looking elsewhere and could have plans to announce by spring.

City leaders are now wishing the orchestra “the best of luck in its relocation search” even as they offer to assist with finding another location within Sarasota city limits.

Two years ago, the Sarasota City Commission rejected the orchestra’s proposal to use seven acres of land in Payne Park for a new music center and education building, which would have required moving of public tennis courts and reconfigured parking.

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The plan triggered an uproar among tennis players and nearby residents who said the music center didn’t fit the terms of an agreement that the Payne family made to the city in 1925. The deed stipulated a “park, playground or kindred use and for no other use or purpose.” Over the years, the property has housed a mobile home park and a baseball stadium.

The commissioners rejected the orchestra’s proposal in 2019, prompting the organization to start searching outside the city limits.

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Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the orchestra, said in an interview Monday that there are “legal issues related to the park and land policy issues” that prevent further discussions on Payne Park.

“We respect the community’s desire for the park, but we have to respect our own work building toward the future,” he said.

McKenna said the orchestra is committed to building a facility that will allow the organization to “serve our community more broadly with a wider range of programs” that aren’t possible in its current home, the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center.

That building is on city property that is being transformed into The Bay Park. The orchestra presents its masterworks concerts in the nearby city-owned Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. It wants a building that could house all its performances and provide space for other musical organizations. 

The Sarasota Orchestra houses its administrative offices, education programs and some performances in the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center. The orchestra wants to build a new music center that would have two performance spaces, including one large enough for its masterworks concerts, which are now presented at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Neel Performing Arts Center.

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McKenna said the orchestra has not ruled out a site within city limits, but “there appear to be no viable options.” In a statement issued Friday, he said the organization is “concentrating on opportunities in Sarasota County.” 

In March, fearing the orchestra would follow Mote Marine Laboratory and the Players Centre for Performing Arts in moving to locations outside the city, Mayor Hagen Brody proposed new talks with the orchestra for Payne Park.

Last month, Commissioner Liz Albert wrote an op-ed column that said, “Don’t let the music die! We are in danger of losing the Sarasota Orchestra, which has been a part of our community for more than 70 years.” 

A rendering of the original proposed Sarasota Orchestra concert hall at Payne Park in downtown Sarasota. The hall would have built on the site of current tennis courts, which would be moved to the area outlined in red.

Other columns and letters to the editor, like one by Sarasota resident Suzanne Stein, claimed the orchestra was trying to bully the city into approving a site that is unacceptable for what she called the “deed-restricted public greenspace in Sarasota’s version of Central Park.”

McKenna said the orchestra’s focus is on privately-owned parcels, which is why the organization won’t comment publicly on its plans or status. It is now conducting site analysis work and that process is expected to last until the spring.

The orchestra said it needs at least seven acres to create a music center that would include two performance spaces for the symphony and smaller music organizations in the community, as well as extensive room for its youth orchestras, the Sarasota Music Festival, rehearsal, storage, and library rooms and administrative offices.

Joseph McKenna is president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra.

“Our vision is to basically meet the producing needs of the orchestra, our education programs and simultaneously help some of the smaller organizations, like Key Chorale, Choral Artists and the Perlman Program/Suncoast,” McKenna said. “Through our discussions, we have learned there is an acute, serious need for them to thrive and grow. We have taken a community-oriented approach to this.”

Brody and City Manager Marlon Brown issued a statement Friday after the Orchestra’s email that said, “Regrettably, we must acknowledge that this is ultimately the Sarasota Orchestra’s decision.” They wrote that the orchestra is “clearly not open” to city sites previously offered and considered.

“We wish the orchestra the best of luck in its relocation search and extend our continued offer to assist with any additional support with a location in the city limits that it may find suitable,” the statement said. “That offer remains on the table.”

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