The Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation, the new name for what had been the Van Wezel Foundation, has announced a $10 million gift from the Paul Seed Fund at KBF Canada.
Seed, who purchased a seasonal home on Longboat Key nearly two years ago, founded StarTech.com, a company that specializes in connectivity accessories for information technology professionals, in London, Ontario, Canada in 1985. He serves as the company’s CEO. He is described as an amateur guitarist and lover of live music, and has become friendly with some local musicians who have played at his backyard parties in Sarasota.
The Foundation said he regularly attends Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall programs and “has sought out opportunities to engage with the city’s performing arts community.”
“The arts inspire the human spirit in ways that are hard to articulate,” Seed said in a statement from the Foundation. “This project will be transformational for our community and live long past this contribution. I’m honored to have the opportunity to make this early leadership investment to catapult the project forward.”
The gift matches a $10 million estate gift from Herta Cuneo, who died in 2017. The Foundation board committed the first $20 million a year ago (including the Cuneo gift), and it has received $1.2 million in state appropriation for a total of $31.2 million. The project, which will include a 2,250-seat main theater, a smaller black-box theater and administrative and education space, is expected to cost $250 million to $300 million. The City of Sarasota is providing the land and half the costs of the new structure, with the rest raised by the Foundation.
The gift comes as a five-member panel of Sarasota community members is in the process of selecting an architectural firm to design the project. The committee has invited 18 firms from around the world to submit proposals for the building and demonstrate they can handle a project of its scope.
Two weeks ago, the Foundation announced that Cheryl Mendelson, who has led the non-profit organization as CEO since 2019, is stepping down due to family reasons. She plans to move to Palm Beach County. Board chairman Jim Travers will serve as interim CEO until a search is completed.
The new center is planned as the centerpiece of the Bay Park Conservancy, a major new greenspace that is being created over the next few years on what is now the parking lot for the Van Wezel. The center would replace the 53-year-old Van Wezel as a home for touring Broadway shows, dance, comedy, music and other events. Foundation leaders have stressed the need for a new venue because of the size and age of the 1,700-seat Van Wezel.
The City Commission plans to create a blue-ribbon panel to consider alternative uses for the Van Wezel. Under the Foundation’s agreement with the city, the purple-hued hall may not be used as a performing arts venue that would compete with the new center.
There has been some community pushback on the project from some who believe a new center is not needed. Last year, the Sarasota Orchestra, which presents its Masterworks series concerts at Van Wezel, announced plans to build its own 1,700-seat music center on Fruitville Road near Interstate 75. The Sarasota County Commission has approved the orchestra’s application for rezoning and special exceptions for the 32-acre site, and the organization expects to finalize its purchase in March.