Breaking News: FIU Proposes Partnership With County And GableStage To Operate Closed Coconut Grove Playhouse

By Bill Hirschman

Another option has emerged for the future of the Coconut Grove Playhouse — a partnership among Miami-Dade County, Florida International University and GableStage to operate a 300-seat theater with an annual $2.6 million budget.

The arrangement was proposed in a February business plan submitted to the state this week and obtained Wednesday by Florida Theater On Stage. The concept, which remains in the exploratory stages, was confirmed by county and FIU officials.

“It’s an idea of extraordinary promise and FIU is to be commended for stepping up,” said Michael Spring, county director of cultural affairs.

The long-shuttered 87-year-old landmark theater was offered publically March 1 by the state Department of Environmental Protection which disposes of surplus property. It requested anyone with an interest in the property to respond within 45 calendar days, approximately April 15, state records show. FIU did that Monday.

The county has long sought to take over the three-story building and its adjacent parking lot at 3500 Main Highway with the intent of using about $20 million in earmarked bond money to build a new and/or renovated regional theater on the location.

The partnership would involve the county managing the property for FIU, but the theatrical productions would be mounted by GableStage, the nationally-acclaimed professional not-for-profit theater currently housed on a month-to-month lease at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gable.  GableStage would continue its six-show season along with developmental play readings and other programs.

The business plan benefits students in FIU’s College of Architecture and The Arts though a detailed series of synergistic programs including participating in GableStage productions, FIU productions on-site, internships, research and graduate classes at the theater. The school could also use the property as a headquarters for community interaction and outreach such as a location for lectures and programs.

A good deal of discussion of details remains and, in fact, many officials in all of the camps have yet to be consulted thoroughly, not the least of which being the bulk of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

“This is the very beginning of the movie,” Spring said.

But FIU’s 13-page business plan is detailed and includes the 2008 preliminary building program study by Fisher Dachs Associates consultants commissioned by the county for a 300-seat regional theater. That conceptual plan does not specify a stand-alone building or a renovation of the current one which has deteriorated.

That remains an open question that no one can answer yet. While some champions of the Playhouse want to see the existing building restored to full operation, the county has frequently spoke of building a new structure on the parking lot and then deciding what to do about the historic building.

The state took over the theater from a private company in 1980 and transferred the title in 2004 to a non-profit corporation. But that group closed the doors 6 ½ years ago amid a sea of debt. Attempts fizzled last fall to negotiate settlements with the holders of about $4 million in remaining debts, including some owned by the Aries Group which wanted to develop the land for commercial uses.

Last October, the state exercised a clause that reverted the title to its control if the property was not used as a theater. Since then, the Department of Environmental Protection has been setting up a potential lease or sale, including a now-completed but still secret appraisal.

The key to who gets the property next lies in a state law that sets up a pecking of order of who has priority consideration: first, state agencies and organizations; then county and municipal governments, and finally, private developers. That means that any expression by FIU would supersede anyone else’s interest.

The crucial sticking point has been money. The county and especially the mayor are determined to restore a nationally-recognized regional theater on the spot, but they have virtually ruled out spending any money to actually buy the property, Spring said. Conversely, state officials feel locked in by a state law that requires selling state land at a minimum of “fair market value,” said DEP Press Secretary Patrick Gillespie. That land has been highly sought as prime real estate by developers. But state law does allow FIU, which would have first call on the property, to enter into a long-term lease with the state for a token amount.

The other sticking point could be the debt that the county does not want to take on. The state has held that any obligation still owed by the Playhouse board evaporated when the state took title, DEP officials have said previously. But Spring said state officials are now reviewing that stance and further discussions are likely.

Another major question is the timeline. Any project would require architectural plans, permitting and approvals from political bodies. Any change to the existing structure would require the blessing of the City of Miami which has placed the building on its register of historic places.

One last question is whether a new theater building would include privately-owned condos and retail space as was proposed by developers years ago.

FIU’s vision is a partnership similar to that of Yale University and the professional Yale Repertory Company. In the business plan, FIU incurs no financial risk for the development and operation of the property. Revenue from GableStage’s productions would fund GableStage. Any revenue from the building’s other operations including the parking lot would support the managing the site. Any excess revenue from the parking lot would support GableStage.

Starting out as a movie theater in 1926, the Spanish rococo building on the southwest corner of the Coconut Grove business/entertainment district has been repeatedly remodeled under several ownerships while becoming one of the nation’s leading regional theaters that emerged after World War II. Producers like Zev Buffman, Robert Kantor, Jose Ferrer and, after 1985, Arnold Mittelman mounted their own shows, hosted national tours and even provided a home for works being developed for Broadway.

The shows and the performers reflected a time when fading stars and supporting actors in film and television were able to headline major stage productions that they would never have the chance to attempt in New York. Some were triumphs and many were flops. Some were unadventurous fare; others reflected the latest thought-provoking hit from Broadway.

Among the legendary productions was the first American version of Godot, starring Tom Ewell and Bert Lahr, an evening that left many playgoers confused because it wasn’t the comedy those stars were usually seen in.

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