Deal to save Coconut Grove Playhouse approved by Miami-Dade County Commission

 
 
Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday approved a proposed agreement to salvage the historic but long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday approved a proposed agreement to salvage the historic but long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse.
PETER ANDREW BOSCH / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

aviglucci@MiamiHerald.com

A strategy to salvage the historic but long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse, devised jointly by Miami-Dade County and Florida International University, has turned into a fleshed-out agreement, but they’re facing a fast-looming October deadline to have the Florida Cabinet approve the plan.

And then they still need to quickly clear up several claims on the property.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners approved the proposed deal with no debate and one dissenting vote. It provides for the county and FIU to co-lease the theater from the state for a nominal sum. The state took back ownership of the playhouse last year from a nonprofit board that critics say ran it into the ground, and made the facility available to state universities and colleges as surplus property.

Now the draft lease, which has also been approved by FIU trustees, goes to Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet for review. That could happen as soon as August, said Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring. State administrators have supported the deal, and county and FIU officials feel there’s a good chance of success, Spring said.

“This is a big moment for renewed optimism,’’ Spring said after the commission vote. “I’m feeling better about it than I’ve felt in a long time.’’

But ironclad state rules mean playhouse supporters must now move rapidly to clear additional hurdles. They need to sign the lease by Oct. 15, or lose their chance at the property. Any changes to the proposed lease would have to go back to the county commission for approval before it can be signed.

A finalized lease would then trigger a further deadline: The county would have 90 days to clear up several claims on the property deed without laying out any funds to do so.

Those include a potential claim by a private developer, Aries Group, which had lent the nonprofit playhouse board money under an old deal to reopen the theater, Spring said.

In addition, the city of Miami has a $216,000 judgment for unpaid building-code violation fines, and another $200,000 in a separate set of mounting fines, Spring said. City Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes Coconut Grove, has agreed to work to forgive the fines if the agreement with the state is finalized, Spring said.

Other encumbrances on the deed include $26,000 in back county taxes and $54,000 in debts to several merchants, according to county documents.

“We’re making progress,’’ Spring said. “There’s a clock on all of this, and that helps move things along.’’

If the claims can’t be cleared up in time, however, the state must by law put the playhouse property up for sale to the highest bidder.

Under the joint plan with FIU, the county would rebuild the deteriorated 1927 Mediterranean Revival theater, considered an architectural and cultural landmark, using $20 million in previously approved bond and bed-tax money. GableStage, a leading company now based at the Biltmore Hotel, would program, run and maintain the playhouse as a professional regional theater.

FIU’s theater program, meanwhile, would partner with GableStage to provide its students with training and hands-on experience in acting, directing, set and costume design and technical aspects of theatrical production.

The playhouse was widely considered South Florida’s leading regional theater when it closed abruptly in 2006 amid mounting debt and managerial disarray.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has led efforts to salvage the theater, which the state had turned over to the nonprofit group, since assuming office. He first tried negotiating settlements directly with debtors, but Aries spurned the county’s offers.

The state then stepped in, triggering a so-called reverter clause to retake the property from the nonprofit board.

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