Orchestra’s Payne Park plan starts on tumultuous note

Editor & Publisher

Sarasota Orchestra CEO Joseph McKenna faced more of a verbal firing squad than a standing ovation at a community meeting last week wherein he outlined the plan for his organization to build a new hall at Payne Park.

The meeting, held in the Sarasota City Commission Chambers, was standing room only with dozens of residents objecting to the use and displacement of about seven acres of public park space to make way for the orchestral complex.

The overarching message could be distilled as, “We love the Orchestra, but just not at the expense of Payne Park; find another location.”

It was only two weeks ago that the Orchestra made public its desire to build a new performance hall and associated facilities in Payne Park, a 39-acre recreational space that is home to the Payne Park Tennis Center, playgrounds, walking paths and numerous wetlands and ponds.

The meeting last week was moderated by McKenna who said that sea level rise, the urgent need for a new hall and other factors are the driving reasons for why the organization does not want to be part of the 53-acre redevelopment of the City-owned property known as The Bay that surrounds the Van Wezel and the existing headquarters of the Sarasota Orchestra.

McKenna spoke of the difficulty the orchestra faces in utilizing six venues throughout Sarasota and Bradenton to showcase its offerings. He said that none are especially conducive acoustically and parking challenges are present in many instances.

McKenna used the word ‘synergy’ and ‘catalyst’ as well as the phrase ‘win-win’ on several occasions to describe the plan that he believes will invigorate the neighborhoods surrounding Payne Park.

“Between the pace of the Bayfront redevelopment and sea level rise, our needs are acute. Payne Park is the only city location that captures all the needs identified,” said McKenna.

The preliminary scope of the project includes a 1,800-seat concert hall and 700-seat recital hall, as well as an educational wing. The proposal is also contingent on the County allowing the orchestra to use a parking garage across the street during evening events.


Opposition mounts…

After McKenna spoke, the audience took hold of the meeting as New College professor David Brain held a microphone moving amid the flurry of hands raised from residents anxious to express their thoughts.

The first resident said, “This plan destroys the natural pond, compromises wetlands and makes the entrance to the park unattractive.”

Another resident said, “You’re going to turn Payne Park into a car park. This is not your land to see an opportunity on. You’re not being city-minded; you’re being selfish.”

Yet another resident spoke of the gift of the property to the city and the covenant in the deed that says the park must be used for a park, playground or “kindred use.” It was said that the vision of Payne Park has stood for 100 years and developing the site with the Orchestra would create a dangerous precedent.

Another resident said they expected “A creative organization to have more imagination in finding a spot. Ducks, swans, frogs make the music at Payne Park; we have our own orchestra.”

One resident expressed frustration in that the city spent $20 million developing the Park over the past decade and rhetorically asked why the city would even consider throwing all that away for the orchestra’s plan.

One speaker found irony in the issue: “It seems ironic you cite an environmental reason to moving but you’re not respectful of the environment at Payne Park.”

A final commenter said the endeavor would rob 20 percent of the green space in the park and told the orchestra to “build a beautiful building on the Bayfront instead.”

After the orchestra representatives absorbed the comments and dozens more that were in a similar vein, they thanked the audience and said they would continue to listen and learn.

The Orchestra says it will hold additional public meetings but wishes to move forward rapidly with its plan in hopes the City Commission will consider and vote on the matter in the coming weeks.

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