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Spy series faces uncertain future in Miami

The producers of the television spy series Burn Notice are optimistic the show will get picked up for a seventh season.

They are less confident they will continue shooting in Miami.

It’s not that Burn Notice wants to leave. The producers have asked for a year-long extension on their lease at the city-owned Coconut Grove Convention Center. They have filmed on the site since 2006.

But Miami Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff is holding firm on his promise to demolish the convention center and turn the grounds into a waterfront park. At least two other commissioners seem supportive of Sarnoff’s initiative.

Sarnoff, who has been an advocate of the film industry locally, hopes Burn Notice will consider shooting elsewhere in Miami.

Studio executives, however, say that’s unlikely.

“If we don’t have the Coconut Grove Expo Center, we will not be filming Burn Notice in the city of Miami,” said Bob Lemchen, the head of production for Fox Television Studios. “It’s just not an option for us.”

Burn Notice, which airs on the USA network, centers on former spy Michael Westen, who is stuck in his hometown of Miami after the CIA scrubs his identity and freezes his assets. Westen and his posse traipse around South Florida trying to figure out who burned him. Along the way, they use their spy savvy to help South Floridians who run afoul of mob bosses and other shadowy figures.

The home base for production is the old Coconut Grove Convention Center. The show pays the city $240,000 in annual rent on a lease that expires in October.

If Burn Notice is picked up for an additional year, Lemchen says the show would be willing to pay a larger rent to stay in the convention center. Lemchen pointed out that the show is built around filming in Coconut Grove, and that scenes often feature local attractions, landmarks and restaurants.

“The show brings Miami alive as a character,” said Eduardo M. Freyre, a Coconut Grove actor who has worked as a Burn Notice extra.

Sarnoff doesn’t deny the value of having a television show filmed in his commission district. But he says the residents of Coconut Grove have made it clear at public hearings that they want a park.

What’s more, he says, the city has stashed away $1.8 million in Burn Notice rent payments and grant dollars.

“This is the front door to Miami. Right now, you are looking at burned-out cars, concrete and trailers,” Sarnoff said.

Other commissioners have suggested Burn Notice move to another Miami film-production studio. Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, for one, wants production to move to a facility in the Wynwood neighborhood.

“I definitely think it would help revitalize the area,” she said.

But Burn Notice producer Terry Miller said the facilities in Wynwood are “too raw” and would require costly improvements to the roof, air conditioning and electrical systems.

Miller said he has scouted out other Miami facilities, and none are suitable for Burn Notice. Even with the right location, Lemchen said, it would cost at least $1 million to move to another studio.

“We will continue looking at Miami,” Lemchen said. “But we’ve had more success looking at Broward, and other states remain a possibility.”

This isn’t the first time Burn Notice has asked Miami for a lease extension.

Miami Commission Chairman Francis Suarez called the city’s negotiations with the show “a yearly drama.”

The drama was high during a commission meeting last week, in which scores of Burn Notice actors and crew members packed City Hall to show support for the series. They weren’t allowed to address the commission, but they made their opinions known outside City Hall when the meeting recessed.

Ellen Jacoby, the show’s casting director, pointed out that Burn Notice provides a revenue stream for the city.

Chimed in Katrina Morris, a Coconut Grove actress: “It brings jobs. It puts people to work. And on an artistic level, it does something that hasn’t been done since Miami Vice.”

The proposed park also has its share of supporters.

Gene Meehan, a Grove resident and owner of the Downtown Athletic Club, believes the city should jump on the opportunity to open up the waterfront.

“If the city should be in any business, it’s the park business, not the film business,” he said.

The decision will ultimately rest in the hands of the city commission.

Suarez says he would be reluctant to lose a television production that showcases Miami.

Commissioner Willy Gort agrees. “But I also know the residents of Coconut Grove have been waiting for a change in that park for a long time,” he said.

Sarnoff has agreed to meet with the producers, but said the city is subsidizing the television series by charging them a low rent on waterfront property.

“We got them to syndication,” Sarnoff said. “And that means, with all due respect, that they are going to make a lot of money.”

Should Burn Notice get the boot, Lemchen said, the action could affect Miami’s image in Hollywood.

“It would send a bad message to the film industry,” he said.