Orchestra not heading to Payne Park

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It took more than five hours of debate, 1,700 petition signatures in opposition and a Chamber full of concerned residents before the City of Sarasota Commission voted 4-1 against the Sarasota Orchestra relocating to Payne Park.

The Orchestra announced in March that it sought to build an 1,800-seat concert hall, 700 seat recital hall and education hall on seven acres in Payne Park in the exact spot where the current tennis center is situated.

Since that March announcement, opposition has grown and attacked the orchestra plan at the meeting last week on many fronts.

Initially, tennis players were opposed to the plan, but that rapidly grew into those who wished to protect the green space and not lose parkland as well as residents in neighboring communities who fear traffic and cited the need for the park as the city grows.

City Manager Tom Barwin opened the meeting this week by saying the Sarasota Orchestra has been on the Bayfront since 1955 and was “looking for a higher quality home.”

Barwin added that collaborations between the city and arts organizations are in the community DNA.

The Orchestra said it was ready to move forward immediately and would spend money on traffic engineering and other studies if the city commission looked favorably on the plan. The organization wished for a good faith initiative before it spent hard dollars.

City Commissioner Shellie Freeland-Eddie immediately questioned why the Orchestra had not been more transparent and detailed on what other parcels it had considered in the city.

Mayor Liz Alpert asked them why they did not relocate to Robarts Arena.

Sarasota Orchestra President Joe McKenna said that the Fair Association uses the property and there were several parameters that made it not viable. He added that a key factor were legacy gifts that the donors wanted to be part of the process.

The public immediately started speaking against the plan.

“I always grab my wallet when people tell me something is good for me,” said resident Martin Hyde.

A young boy named Benjamin even made comments against the plan.

“If they build something humungous in Payne Park it might not be as much fun as it is now,” said Benjamin.

One man who spoke said he had grown up “blue collar” and said that for every person in the room there is probably 1,000 people who have never been to the Orchestra. He said that the request seemed to be a bit selfish on the Orchestra’s part.

Another woman said, “It’s simply a land grab. They (Orchestra) failed to answer to a greater authority: the legacy of a family and a park dedicated to the city.”

A descendent of C.N. Payne, who dedicated the park to the City, Kathleen Emerson Schumate was on hand at the meeting and opposed to the orchestra plan. She is both a resident of both the Payne family as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and her family in her view has evolved from Emerson and Thoreau when it came to the importance of nature in human life.

Schumate said the plan to use seven acres of the park for an orchestra, “Is a dishonor to my Great Great Grandfather.”

The issue of the dedication of the park weighed into some of the commissioners’ decision. The park was sold at a discount and partially gifted in 1925 by C.N. and Martha Payne with the stipulation that it remain recreational space with only ‘kindred’ uses allowed. Whether a symphony hall and performance center would be considered ‘kindred’ if challenged in court caused concern.

“I’m not convinced our interpretation and analysis of the deed survives legal scrutiny,” said Freeland-Eddie. She said she “could not bless this vision” because of the issue of the deed coupled with other lingering questions.

“I’m willing to have another conversation, but not willing to say I’d agree to anything,” said Freeland-Eddie.

That sentiment did not bode well since it would take three commissioners of the five to simply move the plan along, but eventually a four out of five vote would be needed to vote in favor of a lease.

Commissioner Hagen Brody said that he did not believe the City had looked at other options, and that the City had offered the Bayfront to the Orchestra and they had turned them down.

“I’m not moving forward with Payne Park until I’ve heard about other spaces,” said Brody.

Ahearn-Koch said she had serious concerns about the legal opinion that the park could be converted into an orchestra center.

Ahearn-Koch also said she expected the Orchestra to come back to the meeting with some adjustment to their plan, but that had not occurred. But for Ahearn-Koch of main concern was the legal cloud.

“What does it do to the public trust if we are given this land and then we go and build on it?” asked Ahearn-Koch.

Commissioner Willie Shaw said the request would set a precedent the City did not want.

“We are stewards, our responsibility is to hold and we should take that responsibility to a deeper place. At the moment I cannot go forward with this,” said Shaw.

Brody then turned on Barwin, “What do you see as your role in this?”

Barwin said his role was to facilitate the conversation.

Brody responded, “You have resources and staff. I expected you to look at the options. I think it was the easiest task for you to settle on this site. This is an easy out for you. I am disappointed by the lack of leadership on your part on this issue. You are giving us no choices.”

Alpert said it was “completely unfair” for Brody to lay the issue in the lap of the City Manager.

Next the commission voted on the motion to remove Payne Park off as a site for consideration for the Sarasota Orchestra. The commission all voted ‘yes’ with the exception of Alpert.

Throughout the discussion, Alpert was the only commissioner who supported moving forward with the Payne Park location.

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