Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall does not work for the future.
Whenever we talk about new projects involving public funding in Sarasota, it’s essential to consider whether a project is a wise use of money and whether it will pay off for us as a city. It is also critical that we make decisions on these projects based on facts.
There’s a lot of false and misleading information being spread about the city’s plans for a new performing arts center, and unfortunately, some opinions are not based in reality. In short, the current Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall does not work for the future: It’s too small to be competitive for some of the most popular national touring shows, its infrastructure is failing, it lacks current technology and it’s not built to cope with sea level rise.
It would cost more to rehabilitate the building than to start fresh. Expanding the seating capacity of the Van Wezel would essentially demolish and reconstruct most of the structure and the foundation. Such changes would likely affect the shape of the building, sight lines and acoustics.
To learn more about the condition of the current facility, I did some research and also recently took a behind-the-scenes tour. Here’s what I found:
- The roof is tin, uninsulated and past its warranty. Replacing it would cost millions of dollars. When interior humidity is high, condensation can drip into the auditorium.
- Interior flooding and moisture are serious problems: Linoleum covering the concrete floors has to be replaced every two years. When holes have been drilled in the basement flooring in the past, ground water has come up. And elevator shafts flood occasionally.
- The building has inadequate space for the operating kitchen, the cleaning staff, the maintenance shop, the wood shop, the metal shop and equipment storage.
- The dressing rooms are below sea level, making them damp and causing buckling of linoleum coverings, creating risk of injuries.
- There is little offstage space, making it difficult to maneuver set and prop changes during large shows. There’s only one loading dock door with three bays for the up to 19 tractor-trailers that must be unloaded for large shows.
- The lack of a center seating aisle causes hassles for patrons, and creates problems for sound and light operators who normally locate at the back of that aisle. The operators must locate to either side of the auditorium, which results in missing lighting and sound cues from the stage. Sound equipment mounted on the side walls of the auditorium also blocks sight lines.
Even with an expensive, complicated facelift, we’d still end up with an aging building and now one with higher maintenance and operating costs and the lack of flexibility of uses that a new center would provide.
Tourism and the arts and culture are the bedrock of Sarasota’s economy. The creation of the Van Wezel helped cement Sarasota’s reputation as Florida’s cultural capital. The city has done a stellar job of operating it successfully, but time and economics have not been kind to the facility and unfortunately, everything has a shelf life.
When you look at this project, it’s important to consider the economic impact of the arts on our community and how a new performing arts center would boost that. According to a 2017 economic impact study by Americans for the Arts for Sarasota/Manatee Counties, local industry expenditures amounted to $341 million, and 8,705 jobs were generated related to the arts.
Sarasota has sun and sand like many other cities throughout Florida, but what makes us different is our incredibly diverse performing and visual arts industry. This difference is what makes us attractive to visitors and encourages people to consider Sarasota as a place to relocate or start a business.
Government’s role in our economy should be proactive. It plays an important role in shaping our local economy, and it’s essential that the city take steps to assure the continued vibrancy of our bedrock arts and culture industry. We are fortunate that this project is being driven by a public-private partnership that’s a best practice model for performing arts centers around the country.
I urge Sarasota citizens to look at the facts about this project and make their decisions accordingly. I believe that when you do, you will agree with me that this is a game-changer project for our city’s future.
Ken Shelin is an active community leader and former City of Sarasota Commissioner.