Coconut Grove Project Gets County Okay, But Debts Could Still Sink Deal

By Bill Hirschman

The Miami Dade County Commission nudged the resurrection of the Coconut Grove Playhouse one step closer Tuesday by authorizing the mayor to enter into a lease with state officials to reopen a professional theater and educational complex on the site.

It mirrors a similar action taken June 12 by the Florida International University’s Board of Trustees who, along with the GableStage regional theater in Coral Gables, is partnering to create the undertaking on the property at the southwest end of the business district.

With those approvals, the governor’s cabinet meeting as the State of Florida Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund could give its blessing later this summer to leasing the land to the group for 50 years with two 25-year options. If the cabinet changes the terms of the lease, it would have to be reapproved by the county.

The partnership outlined in an FIU memo in February includes GableStage operating a 300-seat theater with an annual $2.6 million budget in what would likely be a new building on the current parking lot. That structure would be built with about $20 million in county bond money already earmarked by voters. The property that FIU would lease from the state would also host programs in which students would train and participate alongside theater professionals.

The project would revive activity at the site, which shuttered more than six years ago after a mountain of debts prompted its non-profit board of directors to close the theater during its 50th season.

But persisting problems with debts, liens and claims could still scuttle the dream.  A requirement of the lease is to clear it of all “encumberances,” meaning deals must be cut with holders of pending debts, liens and fines pending whose worth currently exceeds $1.75 million and could be far more.

If that doesn’t occur, the state will offer the land at public sale. The land at 3500 Main Highway has been eyed hungrily by developers for years.

The resolution approved by the commission Tuesday recommended by Mayor Carlos Gimenez indicates the deadline for completing a lease agreement with the state is Oct. 15. But the lease will not be final unless the county can clear away the debts by January 14, 2014.

That will be a challenge, Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County department of cultural affairs, who has been championing the deal. Even if deals could be struck, it takes time to shepherd them through the county machinery and get approval from the commission. As a result, the county is trying to persuade the state to extended the deadline for settling the debts to May 15, 2014

“The devil is in the details,” Spring said a few weeks ago. “There are even scenarios, if the debtors ask too much money or the county commission refuses to pay off any of the debt, in which the project “may not be worth our while.”

The “encumberances” include

–The city of Miami has four open cases of alleged violations dating back to 2009 and 2010 such as failing to maintain the exterior of the property, each assessing a $250 a day fine.  The city has not provided the county with a total owed, but they received a court judgment in February of $216,250 plus accumulating interest. Add to that an unpaid municipal assessment of $6,881 plus a vacant structure fee of $4,500.

–Aries (GH Mortgage) is a developer who invested money with the Coconut Grove Playhouse Board years ago to erase some of the Playhouse’s debts in return for involvement in any attempt to build residential or commercial development on the property. It has described its interest in the past as being about $1.5 million. The company informed the county in May that it had referred the situation to its attorneys.

–Courts have approved judgments against the property for Best Wholesale Office Products, Andri Chemical of America, Premier Printing Solutions and two state revenue tax liens, totaling about $61,000.

–The county itself holds two special assessments certificates totaling about $26,300.

Another major question is what would happen to the 87-year-old three-story Spanish Rococo building on the City of Miami’s list of historical site. The current business plan adopted by FIU speaks of building a new theater structure on the adjacent parking lot, but is silent about the historic edifice. Spring said last week that making any judgment on that is “premature.” It likely would not be decided until after the deal is completed, based on extensive consultation with the public and architects, he said.
But time has worked against the building as well. The abandoned structure has been deteriorating for years. The state hired a company to do about $5,700 worth of minor repairs earlier this month. Accounts of the building’s condition vary with some people saying the roof has leaked and mold has infected the building, and others saying that the condition is as bad as has been alleged.

Meanwhile, the entire project remains closely watched by groups of people including preservationist groups insisting the current building should be saved and developers who see property with the potential of being condos, businesses or both.

Former playhouse board member Jorge Luis Lopez, wrote in an email Tuesday morning, “…I have seen first hand the long hours and arduous work that many have put forth to save The Playhouse and usher its renaissance as a center for theater and the arts.  While several hurdles made this effort seem vain at times (and other hurdles remain), The Playhouse is simply too important of a resource to allow it to stay shuttered, its seats and stage empty.”

The Playhouse has played a major role in Florida cultural history, 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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