Players and Payne Park could be a great set

After the hubbub that erupted in 2019 when the Sarasota Orchestra proposed to build a new music hall on seven acres in Payne Parkit was surprising to hear of an idea floated recently to make Payne Park Auditorium, located in that same bucolic green space, the new home of community theater organization The Players Center.

It was even more surprising to learn that the developers are a developer who aligned themselves with the orchestra and the activist who led the neighborhood opposition that ultimately led the orchestra to choose to build a new venue in outside the city limits.

Yet influential doctor-turned-developer Mark Kauffman and Kelly Franklin, head of Preserve Payne Park, are now united in believing that the auditorium that was once a community center for “circus people” and is currently the temporary headquarters of city ​​parks and recreation. department, is a perfect fit for Sarasota’s oldest performing arts organization.

“I think it’s a very natural thing,” says Kauffman, a longtime arts supporter who is involved in a new Sarasota Arts Festival is expected to debut in 2024. “Everyone wants players to stay in Sarasota. I think a theater in the park is a very compatible use and it’s the perfect size and type for them and won’t affect the park or the city. It’s a win-win solution.

Echoes Franklin: “For me, this is the perfect fit for Payne Park. Audience size can be accommodated without disrupting the park or creating huge traffic tangles, the building is already there, and the most sustainable and best thing to do would be to use it as a community auditorium. It’s a natural. . . a win-win.

Kauffman came up with the idea after plans to lease the city-owned municipal auditorium to The Players hit a potential stumbling block. The auditorium is in The Bay redevelopment project and the city had previously agreed to partner with The Bay Conservancy to manage the venue.

Since The Bay itself, as well as other community organizations (notably the Sarasota Film Festival) are also interested in using the auditorium for programming, The Players could make a major investment in upgrading facilities. buildings to meet their needs without having control over the programming and use of the installation.

At its May 16 meeting, the Sarasota City Commission tasked The Players, the reserve and city staff to jointly come up with a schedule plan that could meet the needs of all interested parties. It’s a collaboration that won’t serve players well, Kauffman believes.

“I am on [The Bay] would be happy for The Players to invest $6 million and fix it and rent it out,” he says. “But The Players need their own home, a place to rehearse. They cannot be beholden to other organizations and they would have no control over when they would.

Franklin was the first person Kauffman contacted after proposing the alternative idea; despite their prior adversarial status, the two developed mutual respect during negotiations with the orchestra. Because this proposal does not involve new construction, loss of green space, or disruption of current park operations, Franklin enthusiastically embraced the concept – as others responded to his Facebook post about the ‘idea.

“Dr. Kauffman understood that our previous opposition was not to the music or the orchestra, but to having our duck pond, our tennis courts and our green spaces devoted to a cultural activity that most people can’t afford,” Franklin says. “But I like the idea of ​​a local community theater in the community park and in a structure that was always meant to bring community members together.”

Carrie Seidman

Kauffman and Franklin say the size of the auditorium and surrounding parking lot can meet player requirements. A former 4,000 square foot dance floor could accommodate the 300-400 seats and there is unused space behind the building – currently a homeless encampment – ​​which could allow for backstage expansion. There is plenty of surface parking, as well as the nearby city parking garage on Ringling Blvd.

But Williams Skaggs, CEO of The Players Center, says it’s premature to assume Payne Park is the best fit for his organization. “Obviously the general location seems to be convenient and easily accessible and parking is a plus,” says Skaggs. “But there are simply too many unknowns for us about the building itself to have another opinion at this stage on whether or not it might make sense.”

Additionally, Skaggs adds, discussions about the municipal auditorium are ongoing, and at this point he still believes “it could work extremely well and would allow for further collaboration with other community arts organizations that don’t have specific theater”.

Stevie Freeman-Montes, the city’s government relations manager and point person coordinating those discussions, says she didn’t hear about the Payne Park proposal until May 26 and wouldn’t have any official comment until until more information on the feasibility of its use becomes available.

“The Players have not yet approached us to be interested in Payne Park, it was a citizen idea,” she adds. “We would need to know for sure that they are (interested) and really look at what it would take.”

Still, Kauffman is already imagining a marquee on nearby 301 to advertise upcoming shows and a new tongue-in-cheek moniker — the Payne Park Players. “It’s an idea just waiting to be realized,” he says. “And with the support of the community, I think it can happen, and happen quickly.”

That this could happen as the result of an unlikely union between a member of Sarasota’s reviled developer ranks and one of the city’s most outspoken conservationists makes the prospect all the more appealing.

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at or (505) 238-0392.

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