Update: City Commission Workshop

“Wow – this is a reality check,” said City of Sarasota Commissioner Suzanne Atwell after hearing the presentation from Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 volunteer coordinator Michael Klauber and the reports from the Van Wezel and the Sarasota Orchestra at a city workshop earlier this week. “This project will be one of the most important land-use decisions we’ve had to make in a long time.”

The workshop was an opportunity to present an update to the commission and hear their questions without asking for a formal vote. You can see the full presentation here.

“We can now arm ourselves with all of the hard work that you have done and embark on the next steps,” said Commissioner Atwell.

The board heard from Klauber on several updates.

In front of a packed crowd made up of stakeholders and supporters, Klauber began stating, “Fifty-two years ago, the leaders in this community saw a need for a performing arts hall, and working with groups such as the Jaycees and the Sarasota Civic League, they successfully won the approval of the voters for a bond issue that raised the funds for what is now the Van Wezel. Where would we be today without those civic and business leaders in 1964?”

Recapping for commissioners the six guiding principles that were created by the community, seen here, Klauber noted that they “will be the guidepost for any and all proposed redevelopment efforts for the 42 acres of City-owned land.” Klauber noted, “This document becomes the platform for you, our elected officials to stand on as we ponder, after this evening, some of the policy questions associated with the redevelopment of this community asset.”

Klauber elaborated that the group frequently hears from many across the region, about the need for a park-like entity with significant green space on the property. “The third Principle states that ‘Our Bayfront will be welcoming, attractive, publicly accessible, safe, fun and family-friendly open space celebrating the Bayfront’s natural heritage for future generations with enhanced views of the Bay’. This principle epitomizes what so many have said about turning the parking lot into a park,” said Klauber.

Fifty community organizations, which represent a broad cross-section of neighborhoods, cultural, educational and civic groups represent a historical collaborative effort not seen before for the redevelopment of the Bayfront. Recapping the timeline, Klauber updated the commission on several key milestones:

In September, the City Staff completed a complex Technical Report on all of the conditions on the site. Representatives from Bayfront 20:20, the Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Ballet, Van Wezel and Van Wezel Foundation embarked on a learning trip to Union Station and Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando. Continued meetings and forums took place throughout the community and 20:20 held two days of small focus groups with stakeholders in October.

Four key next steps to make this community’s vision a reality were identified: First, the need for a planning organization to oversee the master-planning process emerged as the leading priority. Second, the Van Wezel Foundation and the Sarasota Orchestra’s board will continue their work in parallel with these efforts. Next, there must be continued extensive outreach and input from all of the existing bayfront leaseholders, Bayfront stakeholders, the City and the community. Finally, working with consultants, a preliminary estimate for funding the initial next phase of planning was set at $1 million.

Klauber reported that beginning steps to form the Planning Organization had begun and the business community had already started to pledge funds for its launch.

Next, commissioners heard from both the Sarasota Orchestra and the Van Wezel that both facilities had outgrown their aging facilities. You can find their initial reports here.

In closing, Klauber noted, “One hundred years ago, John Ringling had a vision that became the spectacular Ringling Museum campus. And almost 50 years ago, our community built the Van Wezel – only the third performing arts hall in the whole state of Florida at that time! Communities across the country have successfully completed amazing redevelopment projects, and we have made it our mission to learn from those who have been successful. Now it is our turn to shape and invest in our community’s future.”

While notably overwhelmed by the enormous amount of information and the fundraising required to make Bayfront redevelopment a success, the Commission praised 20:20 for its work.

City of Sarasota Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie stressed the opportunity this project may present to bring jobs and affordable housing to the city, along with emphasizing the importance of preserving public land and green space.

After City of Sarasota Commissioner Susan Chapman questioned whether the public wants the Van Wezel to come down, Jon Thaxton, a stakeholder representative from Gulf Coast Community Foundation and a self-proclaimed passionate advocate for the preservation of public land and green space, responded that there is no plan to raze the Van Wezel. “No one is suggesting that the building come down, and in fact, I feel as if it can be repurposed in some way within the new design,” said Thaxton.

After Klauber mentioned his lofty goal of a plunging a shovel in the ground by December 17, Commissioner Eddie asked, “Is that goal real? Are you serious?,” as the crowd chuckled.

City of Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw noted that he wants the planning for this project to be deliberate and patient, commenting that even though it may take 8 – 10 years in its entirety, that time span will be here before we know it. “Give Michael a shovel and let him do what he needs to do in 2017, but I’m glad to see we are going to take our time with these decisions. As stewards of the land, it makes us think about how monstrous these decisions are.”

The final decision about the formation of the planning organization and its governance model will take place at a future meeting where commissioners will seek public input.

“We only get one chance to do this right,” said Commissioner Eddie.

“This is our biggest legacy,” echoed Commissioner Atwell.

For the latest video on the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 initiative, click here.