State Approves Coconut Grove Playhouse Rebirth Plan From County, FIU And GableStage

By Bill Hirschman

The Governor’s cabinet gave crucial approval Tuesday to Miami-Dade County, Florida International University and GableStage partnering to reopen the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse as a professional theater and educational complex.

The cabinet, meeting as State of Florida Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, approved a business plan for the proposed project as well as a renewable 50-year lease. The land and the building belong to the state.

County Assessor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, one of several local officials speaking in favor of the proposal, told the cabinet that their vote was “the first step on the last leg of a very long journey.”

Joseph Adler, artistic director at GableStage, exuberantly cheered the vote: “We’re on our way!”

The project would revive activity at the site, which was 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.

Financial troubles that have plagued most groups running the theater have emerged as the newest concern giving state officials cautious pause whether the partnership is fiscally viable.

Department of Environmental Protection Herschel Vineyard endorsed the deal to the cabinet Tuesday, but his staff which supervises publicly-owned land, has been antsy. DEP Press Secretary Patrick Gillespie explained in an email, “Given the recent history of the Playhouse closing, financial assurances are an important component to ensure the lease is successful.”

It also concerns Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents the Coconut Grove neighborhood and also spoke in favor of the measure. He noted that additional sources of revenue were needed to ensure that a theater project on the site would not fail a fourth time. After the meeting, Sarnoff said he wants the partnership to consider leasing retail, commercial or residential development built alongside the theater. For years, developers have hungrily eyed the land at 3500 Main Highway on the southwest corner of the commercial district.

A second scenario for the deal with the state emerged just recently: Instead of leasing the land from the state, the county could take full ownership by swapping county-owned land with the state, said Lisa Martinez, senior assistant to County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a strong proponent of the project.

“This is just in the homework stage,” she said Tuesday.

And still threatening the deal are the persisting problems with debts, liens and claims. A requirement of the lease is to clear it of all “encumbrances,” 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 by January 14, 2014, the state will offer the land at public sale.

Active negotiations continue with several of the parties. They include:

–The city of Miami for building code problems which have been estimated between $225,000 and $500,000.

–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.

–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.

But the proposed partnership will not repeat the financial disaster that occurred when the state gave the Playhouse to a non-profit board and “let them go,” assured Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County department of cultural affairs. It will have safeguards because the project would be owned by a governmental entity that will insist on all the checks and balances for budgeting and expenditures.

The partnership outlined in an FIU memo 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.

Speaking to the cabinet, FIU President Mark Rosenberg, Dean Bruce Shriner and Spring stressed the merits of the deal from both an economic development perspective as well as the educational opportunities for students.

“We are a university whose backyard is infused with the arts,” Rosenberg said. He cited $450 million annual expenditure in the arts locally with an economic impact of $1.2 billion given its synergy with associated businesses.

Shriner noted that the project will attract and retain more students, better prepare them for the workforce, alleviate classroom crowding and even enable the serious discussion of creating the first master’s degree program in theater in the county

The cabinet — Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater – gave the project unanimous approval with no discussion.

Still unknown 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 last week, “…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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