The Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota is coming up on a 50-year anniversary.
A lot has changed for the clam shell-shaped building in half a century.
It has seen acts from “Fiddler on the Roof” to John Legend.
Productions are bigger now. Other theaters have more seats. It’s also now in a FEMA-designated flood plain.
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One room serves as the board room, catering room and education center. The split lobby configuration and continental seating are inconvenient for an older clientele.
These are issues that executive director Mary Bensel cites as signs that the organization has, sadly, outgrown the venue.
“In competing for shows, it’s always very hard,” Bensel said. “When I have 1,700 seats and say they have 2,200 seats, you can understand how the ticket prices for us are much higher. We have the same artist fee they have and the same expenses, and so you can only spread it out so much.”
The Van Wezel Foundation is a non-profit that raises funds to support the events hall. In 2014, the foundation hired consulting firm AMS Planning and Research to do a study on the best path forward for the Van Wezel. The study concluded that “the Van Wezel is a highly successful, but ultimately unsustainable, enterprise in its current facility.”
A new plan to redevelop Sarasota’s Bayfront includes a bigger and better performing arts hall as a centerpiece. It would be built on higher ground away from potential flooding, with more seats, more accommodating facilities and two levels of parking underneath the building.
On Tuesday, the Van Wezel Foundation announced that the new hall will be called Sarasota Performing Arts Center and launched a new website complete with artist renderings.
The cost estimate for the new hall is $240-$270 million.
Bensel says that the expenditure will translate to better shows and cheaper tickets for patrons.
Funding is another issue.
“There’s a lot of work going into how the funds need to be raised,” Bensel said. “They will have to be raised on a federal, state, county and city level. And the way we envision it is that it will have to be privately and publicly funded.”
Jim Selinski, the chief operating officer for the Van Wezel Foundation, will oversee the fundraising efforts. Selinski says the plans will greatly expand educational opportunities for the arts center.
“The core of our mission is full-time educational programming,” Selinksi said.
More than 30,000 students from four counties are provided with educational programming and access to shows each theater season through the foundation’s Schooltime Performance Program, a number that Selinski said could increase drastically with better facilities.
Formal talk of redeveloping Sarasota’s bay front began in 2013.
Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, also known as The Bay, is a non-profit formed in 2016 to oversee the project. The nine-person board is headed by A.G. Lafley, the former Proctor and Gamble CEO who recently settled in Sarasota.
The Bay hired Sasaki Associates, a design firm from Massachusetts, to draw up plans for the space.
The plans include a vision to transform more than 50 acres around the Van Wezel into a community park with restaurants, docks and green space.
The plan goes before the Sarasota commission on Sept. 6 for review.
If approved, fundraising efforts would start immediately. The project might not be completed until 2026.
At a city commission workshop, The Bay suggested that the park and performing arts center be developed in stages so that the Van Wezel can remain in operation until the new performing arts center opens.
The plan also calls for the Van Wezel, which is owned by the City of Sarasota, to be preserved or repurposed.
According to Bensel, the commission and the community will have plenty of time to figure out what to do with the Van Wezel.
“There have been several ideas,” Bensel said. “One where you honor the shape of the building and it becomes a shade pavilion on the new park, or an amphitheater. Or it could be maintained as the building it is today. It’s an emotional issue I think for some people. But from my perspective I think we should honor the Van Wezel and respect it for what it’s done for the community for 50 years.”
If it is decided to maintain the building in its current state, major updates will be required to comply with FEMA regulations.
According to Lorrie Muldowney, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation, a historic designation for the Van Wezel could be a workaround for some of the regulations.
Muldowney said she is glad that the Van Wezel is on the master plan and that options are being explored to preserve it.
Muldowney and other board members of the alliance would like to see the same considerations made for the building that formerly housed the G. Wiz Museum and Selby Public Library, which is located on the southern side of the bay front.
The building is not currently included in the master plan.
“These buildings embody memory and stories, and obviously preserving old buildings is a very sustainable practice,” Muldowney said. “The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been doing some interesting studies about the importance of older buildings in downtowns. The idea is that these buildings can help small businesses, because not everybody can handle top end rent at the prime location; in fact, few can. So when you look at buildings that might be older, might not have all the amenities, might be on the fringe of a downtown area—these are the places where small businesses can get a start. Maybe artists can have a space. Maybe that’s where the guy who rents the kayaks works.”
Despite her objections, Muldowney praises those leading the project for the level of community engagement.
“I think the team has great sensitivity to historic buildings and there significance,” Muldowney said. “I think they’re doing a phenomenal job. But I do want to express my opinion about the G. Wiz building.”
According to Bensel, whatever does wind up going on the land has to serve the community.
“It cannot be used for profit,” Bensel said. “You can’t put a big hotel or condos here.”
The plan proposes a governance model in which a separate non-profit would be established to oversee the events hall, which would remain under city ownership. Similarly, a conservancy would be established to oversee the bay front park.