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Theater plans at Payne Park face headwinds, after morphing

Written by on Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Players’ shift from leasing to building prompts resistance from neighborhood organizers.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Apr. 17, 2024

Host: The Players theater is one of the oldest cultural institutions in this arts town, and it’s homeless. So it does not surprise that the City of Sarasota is trying to help. However, the Players’ proposed construction project at Payne Park has become embroiled in controversy — similar to the one that killed the Sarasota Orchestra’s bigger project for a concert hall in the same park in 2021. Our news team reports.

Johannes Werner: Development Review Committee meetings are technical, low-emotion affairs where city planners quiz developers about details such as garbage truck turnaround, sidewalks, trees, fire safety and the like. The one this morning at city hall wasn’t any different. It ended up with a few minor changes to the Players’ plans.

However, a community organizer says that meeting should not have happened in the first place. That’s because the Players’ original plan shifted from renovating and using an auditorium built in the 1960s, to building a bigger venue next door. And that, says Kelly Franklin, violates the deed by the Payne family that gifted the land to the city in the 1920s.

The original deed states that the donated land “shall be used for park, playground and kindred uses and for no other use or purpose”.

Kelly Franklin: I am shocked that in today’s presentation they pitched this as a public-private partnership to activate the park. Well, that wasn’t an offer. And if it was an offer, why would we offer it to you over anybody else, in a not-in-the-sunlight process? So how it got to this stage, with staff spending detailed time going over technical specs for a new building in a park that is deed-restricted, and which I and others – including the Payne family, have said we will litigate, if you try to approve construction of a paid indoor anything in this particular park. 

JW: The Players’ plans are part of a round robin of cultural buildings in town. The Players sold their original venue in downtown to a developer, with plans to build a new home at Lakewood Ranch. But those plans fell apart, and the troupe is now leasing space at an ailing shopping mall that is subject to redevelopment.

The Stage proposal: Tripling the footprint of the existing auditorium in Payne Park.

The city has offered to lease 1.9 acres of Payne Park and the hurricane-damaged auditorium. The Players originally agreed to that. But then, the Players’ plans shifted, and that has prompted opposition from the nearby Alta Vista Neighborhood Association, which is calling on community members to sign a petition to deny.  At issue is the fact that The Players not only want to renovate and take over the Sarasota School of Architecture-style auditorium, but triple the square footage with a new performing arts building connected to it and expanding a parking lot, taking away park land.

It was resistance from tennis players and the Alta Vista association, led by Kelly Franklin, that brought down plans three years ago by Sarasota Orchestra to build a concert hall in the park. Franklin objects to the general notion of building in parks, particularly when it comes to commercial, for-pay undertakings.

KF: Obviously, A.G. Lafley has led a multi-year effort as the Bay convert an asphalt parking lot to the green blue places that’s open and free for everyone, that we’ve all wanted for decades. So that’s great. But somehow, developers got the notion that that meant that all of the parks needed activation. And activation seems to mean entertainment. And it seems to mean paid entertainment. And it seems to mean paid private entertainment for profit.

JW: The Players’ plans are further complicated by the fact that another non-profit, UnidosNow, recently emerged as a contender, saying they would be interested in leasing just the land and existing auditorium, without adding a building. UnidosNow runs education programs for Hispanics in the area, out of leased offices at a social service complex on 10th Street. The non-profit says it would partner with a cultural organization, CreArte Latino. CreArte, whose cultural and arts programs cater to Hispanics as well, says its current lease of a commercial building near the airport is about to expire.

That said, the Players argue that the Stage will benefit not just them, but a slew of other local arts organizations. According to The Players, potential co-users include Artistic Series Concerts, Azara Ballet, Chamber Orchestra of Sarasota, Ensemble New SRQ, Jazz Club of Sarasota, Key Chorale, Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble, Pops Orchestra, Ring Sarasota, SaraSolo, Sarasota Contemporary Dance, Sarasota Jewish Theatre, Sarasota Rising, Squeaky Wheel Theatre Troupe, The Arts & Cultural Alliance, The Hermitage, and Theatre Odyssey.

The next step in the process is a community workshop about The Stage plans. Franklin hopes the city commission will intervene at their next meeting May 6.

Short of that, she believes the deed violation could be an angle for legal action.

KF: The city attorney has said repeatedly that the terms of the deed are pretty clear, that his personal sense was that if the city commission wanted to try to make an argument that paid entertainment is a legitimate public use in a park, he would be prepared to argue that. But that the precedent did not provide a lot of comfort that that was going to be a winning argument.

The VanWezel Purple Ribbon Committee is currently taking a big-picture look at the space needs of local arts organizations, and the Players are part of that.

Reporting for WSLR News, this is Johannes Werner.


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