Sarasota is in the midst of a great reimagining of our bayfront, and Plymouth Harbor resident Karl Newkirk has taken on an important role in the future of our community as a member of the Van Wezel Foundation’s strategy committee.

After moving to Sarasota upon retirement, a friend invited him to join the Van Wezel Foundation board of directors in 2007. “As I got to understand Sarasota, I realized that the Van Wezel is one of the city’s special things,” Karl said.

The Van Wezel is an iconic piece of Sarasota, but at 50 years old, the building’s infrastructure has started to show its age. Karl and the Van Wezel Foundation Board evaluated whether the purple performance hall would be able to meet the future needs of the Sarasota community, and sadly the answer was no. Icon or not, the Van Wezel would need to be replaced with a new performing arts hall for Sarasota to continue its role as the art and cultural center of the west coast. “For the good of Sarasota, it needed to be done,” Karl said.

Around the same time, a dialogue about the future of the bayfront was beginning among community leaders. Enter the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 initiative.

Started by local restaurant owner Michael Klauber, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 is a group of local community organizations who “support the creation of a long-term master plan for the Sarasota bayfront area that will establish a cultural and economic legacy for the region while ensuring open, public access to the bayfront.” According to the initiative’s website, “more than 55 arts, neighborhood, foundation, and business groups have had their boards unanimously vote to support a common vision statement.” Thanks to Karl, Plymouth Harbor was one of them.

With so much support from the community, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 caught the attention of the City Commissioners, who agreed to creating the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO). Karl, as a member of the Van Wezel Foundation’s strategy committee, worked closely with SBPO as they studied the area and developed a plan to best utilize the 53 acres. Fortunately, these acres reside in a trust that prohibits large-scale commercial development.The plan, which the City Commission approved last September, places a new performing arts hall at the hub of the design, along with walking trails, boat docks, and shops and restaurants. The beloved current Van Wezel will remain open and operating during the years it will take to fundraise, design, and build the new performing arts hall. Then, the City will decide how to re-purpose the old building. The goal is to create an accessible, walkable facility that has something for everyone, no matter their age or status. With three large pedestrian ramps crossing U.S. Highway 41, people will be able to traverse the area by foot or by bike without worrying about motor vehicle traffic.

“I love being able to be a part of something that will solidify Sarasota’s premier status today as a cultural center,” Karl said. “It is important we continue educating our community and exposing our children to the arts.”

This is a massive project, one that has been met with its fair share of pushback, but “it is important that future generations have the ability to experience what we have gotten to,” Karl said. “I want to see it through.”