State of Florida says it will retake Coconut Grove Playhouse in 30 days

The state of Florida says it will exert its power to retake control of the historic but long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse in 30 days, after efforts to reopen it have stalled.

09/11/2012 7:51 PM

09/11/2012 7:53 PM

The state of Florida has dropped the hammer on stalled efforts to revive the historic but long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse, saying it intends to reclaim the property within 30 days from a nonprofit board that critics say ran the storied theater into the ground.

In a letter to board Chairwoman Shelly Spivack, Al Dougherty, deputy secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, said the state board of trustees will exercise its automatic power to take back control of the property, citing the “the extended closure of the Playhouse’’ and its condition of disrepair.

The state ceded the playhouse to the nonprofit board in 2004, but retained the right to take it back if the theater was not being used. Mired in debt, the playhouse closed abruptly in 2006.

The letter, written Monday, comes after months of negotiations led by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who was hoping to assume control of the playhouse and reopen it in collaboration with a private developer. The negotiations stalled after hitting a roadblock in July, when a principal creditor rejected a financial settlement offer from the county.

On Tuesday, Gimenez still held out hope that the state, which did not spell out what it intends to do with the property, will eventually put the playhouse in the hands of the county, which has earmarked $20 million in voter-approved bonds for its restoration. Gimenez’s intention has been to subsidize the theater’s operations by developing its parking lot.

“I would hope the state can clear up the legal obstacles and give it to the county,’’ Gimenez said. “We’re the only ones with the capacity to reopen it and bring great theater back to Coconut Grove. We’ve been stuck in the same spot for a long time, so unless something drastic happens in the next 30 days, this is probably the best course of action.’’

The state’s action was triggered by a letter from State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the outgoing House majority leader, who has long backed efforts to reopen the playhouse but grew frustrated by the lack of a resolution.

Playhouse board member Jorge Luis Lopez said he was “disappointed’’ by the DEP letter, noting that the state ceded the playhouse to the board in the first place because it did not have the resources to keep the perennially money-losing theater in operation.

But he said the letter might provide enough pressure on concerned parties to convene once more in a final effort at a resolution before the state’s 30-day deadline.

“The clock has run, but we are the closest we have ever been to a resolution, and it does pressure everybody to see if there is a possibility of resolution,’’ he said. “We will get together as a board and see what this means.’’

Gimenez was able to engineer a settlement agreement with one of two main playhouse creditors, developer Henry Pino. But the second, Aries Group, which had previously reached an agreement with the playhouse board to redevelop the property, claimed it was owed more than $2 million by the nonprofit group.

The county offered $600,000 if Aries could document certain expenses, but the developer responded instead with a new development proposal backed by a financial “white knight,’’ county officials say. The county and Aries have been unable to come to an agreement, Gimenez and other county officials said.

Lopez said the white-knight offer had not been fully vetted and it was unclear how realistic the Aries proposal was.

The city of Miami, meanwhile, has been threatening to foreclose on the playhouse because of more than $140,000 in fines for building-code violations. The landmark 1927 Mediterranean Revival building has been slowly deteriorating since closing, and has been broken into numerous times by homeless people and vandals.

Few involved believe the state would be interested in running the playhouse itself. Under state law, the playhouse could be declared surplus property and would be offered first to a state university, then a state college and finally a local government.

Another option, said county cultural affairs director Michael Spring, is for the state to retain ownership but reach an agreement with a local group or government to manage it. That model was used for the Miami Circle Park, the ancient archeological site at the mouth of the Miami River that’s owned by the state but was turned into a park and is managed by the HistoryMiami museum.

Grove residents and business owners have been clamoring for the playhouse to reopen, saying its closure blighted a section of picturesque Main Highway and contributed to an economic downturn in the village’s downtown, including the failure of several nearby restaurants that depended on theater crowds.

Hundreds of Groveites and theater supporters held a raucous yellow-ribbon rally outside the boarded-up theater earlier this year calling for the playhouse board to surrender control of the place.

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