Year in Review – Sarasota Orchestra still looking for site to build anew


One community battle in 2019 was far more operatic than orchestral.

Within a span of six months, the Sarasota Orchestra announced it planned to move from its Bayfront home, expressed a desire to develop seven acres at Payne Park, was fought by an ardent community and opposition and then as a final act was voted down by the City Commission 4-1.

The issue began when the Orchestra announced that it would not be a part of the master plan project, The Bay, that will redevelop 53 acres of publicly-owned land surrounding the Van Wezel and the existing Orchestra headquarters. The Orchestra administration said it desperately needed an integrated performance space and that many factors were adding a sense of urgency to find a new home. First, the Orchestra performs at several venues throughout the regionand the process is both cumbersome and less than ideal from an operational as well as acoustical standpoint. Another factor is the belief that sea level rise should be considered in the long-range planning and that relocating from the Bayfront would be advantageous.

Lastly, the combination of the two above factors made the orchestra hesitant to predicate its redevelopment on the expansive timeline of the Bay Project.

All of this led for Orchestra President and CEO Joseph McKenna to approach the community and City in March 2019 with a plan to build an 1,800 seat concert hall, 700-seat recital hall and educational wing on seven acres of the 39-acre city-owned Payne Park. The plan was also contingent on the County allowing the use of a parking garage situated just north of the site.

The opposition was immediate and vocal. Residents opposed to the development and the relocation of the existing tennis center cited a deed restriction that was placed on the property restricting  the city to recreational park and “kindred” uses.

City Manager Tom Barwin and City staff both recommended approval by Sarasota Orchestra as the issue headed to a commission decision in May.

The commission questioned why other locations were not considered or suitable including Robarts Arena. Residents called it a “land grab” and urged the city to turn the plan down.

A descendent of the original donor of the facility said the plan was “a dishonor to my great great grandfather.”

City Commissioners grew concerned about the issue with the deed and believed there would certainly be a legal challenge.

Commissioner Hagen Brody faulted Barwin for a lack of leadership and a failure to bring other choices.

It was only Commissioner Liz Alpert who supported the Symphony at Payne Park, the rest agreed with Commissioner Willie Shaw to remove Payne Park for future consideration as a Symphony site.

Site search continues

Barwin was urged at the meeting to provide a report on available parcels and on July 1 a 9-page memo outlined numerous potential properties.

In October of 2019, Alpert urged fellow commissioners to create a draft resolution stating the City’s support of the orchestra in finding a new home.

Since the Barwin memo outlining the possibilities of other sites, there has been no formal decision or application or request for anything specific regarding a new home for the Symphony. It has been reported to Longboat Key News in December 2019 that the Orchestra is reconsidering its decision and may ultimately find a home in The Bay Project.

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