Tony Stone is concerned about his grandfather’s enduring legacy – the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Stone’s grandfather, Lewis Van Wezel, and his wife, Eugenia, donated a significant portion of the cost of building the iconic purple hall. The couple supported the arts in Sarasota.
Stone, who lives in Bradenton, said that earlier this year, he learned from a friend that the fate of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall could be in jeopardy.
“It was shocking, I think,” he said. “We just assumed it was a rock, it was a solid element in our family’s legacy.”
Stone is one of many area residents who are concerned with the city of Sarasota’s plan to, in partnership with the nonprofit Van Wezel Foundation, build a new arts hall on Sarasota Bay, which will be called the Sarasota Center for the Performing Arts.
The city hasn’t yet decided what will happen to the historic Van Wezel hall. A recent contract between Sarasota and the foundation says that the hall won’t be allowed to compete directly with the new center, which has concerned some community members. But the Van Wezel Foundation’s CEO told the Herald-Tribune that the contract doesn’t prevent arts performances from taking place at the purple hall.
Over the last few months, numerous Sarasota community members have expressed criticism about the project. Some have critiqued the city’s plan for how to pay for the new center, which is expected to cost $350 million. Others believe the proposal doesn’t respect the legacy of the Van Wezel family.
These qualms will likely play a role in the City Commission election this year, as the candidates who win will have a seat at the table during future decisions about the new performing arts hall.
A transformative performing arts center
The Van Wezel Foundation and the city envision the center as a “preeminent destination” for the performing arts in the US, said Cheryl Mendelson, the foundation’s CEO. The building will be the centerpiece of The Bay, a 53-acre park that’s being created on the Sarasota bayfront.
The Sarasota Performing Arts Center, or the SPAC, will have a 2,250-seat main stage theater and a 400-seat flexible performance and event space. It will also host educational programming and feature a lawn where people will be able to watch movies or performances in the open air.
Project leaders have said that the current Van Wezel building’s layout would preclude Sarasota from attracting some national tours and Broadway shows in the future.
“We don’t want Sarasota and the region to have to drive to Tampa or to Orlando to see a major presenting or touring act that we would be able to host here in our own community,” Mendelson said.
The city is going to convene a “blue ribbon” committee to determine how the Van Wezel will be used once the SPAC opens its doors. City Manager Marlon Brown said he plans to select the committee members this winter.
Citizens raise financial concerns
In April, the city approved a partnership agreement with the foundation for the planning, financing, design and construction of the SPAC. Under the agreement, the city is responsible for half of the total project cost, or $175 million, and the Van Wezel Foundation is responsible for the other half. The nonprofit plans to solicit donations from individuals, foundations and corporations.
The city is planning to pay for its half through a number of ways, including $50 million expected to come from the bayfront area tax increment financing district. Tax increment financing devotes increased revenue from property values spurred by rising development improvements to further enhancements in a district.
The city also plans to borrow money through a revenue bond, backed by the revenues from a certain project or source, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. In this case, Sarasota will use the revenue earned from the new performing arts hall – or tickets – to pay off the loan.
But some have criticized this proposal. Ron Kashden, a certified public accountant and Sarasota citizen, said his analysis suggested that ticket prices would have to increase substantially for the city to pay back the bond.
Kashden looked at several possible scenarios. Under one, the tickets would have to be twice as expensive as now at the Van Wezel – rising from $74.54 on average to $149, he said.
“For a couple to go to the Van Wezel for $150 is a lot different than a couple going to the Van Wezel for $300,” Kashden said.
But his analysis did not take into account state and federal funding, which the city is hoping to receive help it pay for the project, according to the city manager. The state recently awarded Sarasota a $990,000 grant for the SPAC, and it is planning to apply for more.
The city also plans to use $6 million of local sales tax money on the project – if voters decide this November to extend the tax for another 15 years.
These funding sources would mean the city could borrow less than Kashden estimated, meaning ticket prices wouldn’t be as expensive as he predicted.
Brown insisted that he would not allow the ticket price to increase from $74 to $149.
“If that happens, I would no longer be the city manager sitting in this seat,” he said. “I would not allow that type of situation to happen.”
Brown said that the revenue bond will be paid off through a surcharge to the SPAC tickets. Van Wezel customers already pay a few surcharges when purchasing tickets, including a $1 Capital Improvement Fund fee, a $2 parking fee and a $4 operations surcharge.
The city manager said he plans to be deliberate and cautious with the SPAC project.
“I am not going to do anything that’s going to put the city in jeopardy,” he said.
Van Wezel descendants express concerns about the SPAC plan
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall was built in 1968 and 1969 with money from a city bond and the Van Wezels’ bequest.
Katherine Van Wezel Stone, Lewis’ granddaughter, believes his legacy was to create a hall that would further the performing arts and would also “inspire other performing arts in the city.”
“I think it really set in motion or helped set in motion a flourishing of the arts in Sarasota,” she said.
Katherine Van Wezel Stone and her brother, Tony Stone, said the Van Wezel Foundation and the city didn’t notify them about the plans for the Sarasota Performing Arts Center. Tony Stone said he knew generally that a larger performing arts facility was planned for the bayfront, but he didn’t know about the April agreement between the city and the foundation until his friend told him about it.
Katherine Van Wezel Stone said she read the agreement after learning of the plans.
“I was quite dismayed to see that it really did look like the Van Wezel Hall was going to be sort of starved to death under this plan, that it really was going to be sort of left to deteriorate under the plan,” she said.
The agreement says that once the once the new center opened, the Van Wezel will have to “cease operation as a performing arts facility with respect to booking any program or activity that would compete directly” with the new center.
But Mendelson, the foundation’s CEO, said that this doesn’t mean that the Van Wezel will be forbidden from hosting arts performances.
Mendelson emphasized that her organization has “the utmost respect for the legacy and the vision” that Lewis Van Wezel had for the Sarasota community.
“We are thrilled and open and happy to speak to the Van Wezel family,” she said. “We’ve recently reached out to them actually to invite open dialogue and to meet, and we’d love the opportunity to share the vision for a future performing arts center.”
Katherine Van Wezel Stone said her grandparents were “very supportive” of the arts performing, so she’d like to see the Van Wezel remain that kind of center. But she noted that she could also see it being used as an art museum.
“If it wasn’t needed for performing arts venue, it could be a wonderful for visual arts,” she said.
“But I certainly think it’s a really important venue,” she added, “and it really needs to be preserved as a contribution to the arts.”