Breaking News: State Approves Last Hurdle To County/FIU/GableStage Theater On Coconut Grove Playhouse Site

grove1By Bill Hirschman

A new regional theater and educational complex was cleared this afternoon to rise on the site of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. A signed, executed lease with the state, which owns the property, is expected to arrive in the mail as soon as this week, state and county officials said.

The county’s furious efforts culminated Tuesday afternoon when it submitted debt settlements to a title company which approved the deal. Then state officials sent word about 2:30 p.m. today that it concurred – mere hours before a no-excuses deadline was set to expire.

Clearing any encumbrances was the last crucial remaining roadblock to a deal that leases the property for 50 years to Miami-Dade County. The county will partner with GableStage, an acclaimed Coral Gables theater, and Florida International University to create a 300-seat professional theater with a $2.6 million operating budget and an educational complex. The undertaking is expected to be built from scratch on the parking lot adjacent to the deteriorating 87-year-old edifice, a historical landmark whose fate remains uncertain.

“We’re done!” said Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County department of cultural affairs, about 15 minutes after the state officials called. “There was cheering throughout the office. Almost everybody here has worked on this.”

Equally elated was Joseph Adler, producing artistic director of GableStage. “It’s been a long time coming – a long, long time…. This is spectacular news. I’ve been asked almost 10, 12 times at each performance what’s happening with the Coconut Grove.”

The Playhouse has been closed since 2006 – its 50th anniversary season — when an estimated $4 million in debts caused its non-profit board to shutter operations. That invalidated the Playhouse’s lease with the state which had taken ownership of the property in 1980.

For years, the county has been trying to develop a national-class regional theater for the site as part of its vision of Miami-Dade as an international cultural hub. It had raised $20 million through bond issues already earmarked for the project. But protracted dealings with creditors persisted to reduce $3.5 million in open claims.  In fact, one creditor still remains unsatisfied and its claim has been put into escrow to enable the deal to go through.

“Now comes the hard part,” Spring said today.

The next step will be for the county to put out a call for competitive bidding for a team to develop a master plan for the site and detailed plans that consider all of the logistical needs of GableStage and FIU. The team would include a wide variety of expertise from architects to electrical engineers to historic preservation experts.

Among the thorny issues the team must deal with is what to do with the existing building on the site. Public input will be encouraged. But the key is how to build a theater complex on the site within the $20 million, Spring said.

Spring expects the whole process to be complex. “It won’t be elegant, but hopefully the result will be elegant.” No one has a reliable timetable in mind.

It also means that GableStage with its relatively modest budget and infrastructure will have to ramp up its fundraising and organizational efforts, Adler said.  But it started those efforts already in part to co-produce its current production of Antony and Cleopatra, along with the Royal Shakespeare company and the Public Theater of New York. The local company’s share of the budget, $700,000, is seven to ten times what a single show has cost GableStage previously.

Adler hopes that today’s developments will encourage patrons, donors, companies and foundations to contribute manpower and money to take the company to the next stage.

The fate of the Playhouse project had been uncertain late Tuesday afternoon. All of the documents reflecting settlements and affidavits were turned over by county attorneys to the property title company for verification Tuesday, but the title company needed to verify every detail since it would be on the financial hook if anything went wrong, Spring said Tuesday.

In fact, one of the claims was and continues to be open — Primer Printing Solutions which wants $58,412. To keep the claim from interfering with the title, the county has put the total amount in escrow and plans to file a lawsuit over the money, Spring said Tuesday.

Last month, with at least two claims still open, the County Commission voted to allow Mayor Carlos Gimenez to negotiate further deals with a cap of $120,000.

In a news release this afternoon, Gimenez, who has supported the deal, was quoted as saying, “This is real progress in advancing Miami-Dade County as a global center for culture and commerce. Now we can get started on the work to ensure that this important site is reactivated in order to present great theater experiences for families and children throughout South Florida.”

Brian Schriner, dean of the FIU College of Architecture + The Arts, also was quoted in a release, “We look forward to collaborating with GableStage, a world-class regional theater company, to develop programs that provide superb educational experiences, ranging from student internships to university-sponsored performances and community activities.”

Another ongoing twist to the situation is a land swap. The county has been talking with the state about trading surplus land, thereby giving the county full ownership of the property. Those discussions are expected to continue.

Starting out as a movie theater in 1926, the three-story Spanish Rococo building on the City of Miami’s list of historical site athas played a major role in Florida cultural history. The edifice 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 Waiting For 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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