Miami-Dade County

Miami Forever bond could change the math — and politics — on the Coconut Grove Playhouse

The facade of the Coconut Grove Playhouse
The facade of the Coconut Grove Playhouse Miami Herald file

As the county pursues a polarizing plan to partially demolish and restore the shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse, the mayor of Miami is waiting to see if voters will hand him a $10 million monkey wrench.

Tomás Regalado, the father of the $400 million Miami Forever general obligation bond on the Nov. 7 ballot, has floated the possibility of using millions created for “cultural and historic facilities” by the proposed tax initiative to help fund the revitalization of the theater.

The mayor, however, doesn’t want the money to finance the county’s current vision for a cultural campus and 300-seat theater, which he sees as inadequate. Instead, he wants to support a dueling proposal backed by Miami attorney and campaign rainmaker Mike Eidson.

“A 300-seat theater isn’t enough for a grandiose theater as the Coconut Grove Playhouse,” said Regalado, who acknowledged discussing the money last year with Eidson. “I told him ‘We have this bond issue, which can include cultural affairs. But you would have to fight for it.’ 

The potential $10 million infusion could inject sudden life into Eidson’s proposal — and confusion into the county’s plans.

Eidson has talked for years about building a 700-seat theater and arts campus at the playhouse, a historic venue on Main Highway that started out showing films and blossomed into one of Miami’s preeminent cultural destinations before financial woes forced its sudden closure in 2006. He formed a foundation to support the cause, but so far has been unable to come up with the funding or political backing for his estimated $80 million plan for a main stage, black box, conservatory and park.

The county, on the other hand, has partnered with Florida International University and leased the playhouse from the state with plans of creating a different performing arts campus. Some $20 million has been put toward an effort to fully restore the wing-shaped playhouse building on the street and replace an existing 1,100-seat theater with a state-of-the-art 300-seat black box.

Some of the county’s plan remains unfunded. But Michael Spring, head of cultural affairs for the county, said his office is deep into the planning stages and moving toward a solicitation to begin construction on the theater in the coming months.

“We have an agreement with the state where they expect us to be moving forward with the project and we’re doing that,” he said.

But the county plan has its detractors, Grove-area County Commissioner Xavier Suarez among them. Meanwhile, his city counterpart, Commissioner Ken Russell, will push Thursday to delay a hearing on an appeal of a ruling by the city’s historic preservation board giving a preliminary endorsement to the county’s smaller plan.

Russell said he wants the Grove to have more time to discuss the potential of the site during a Nov. 30 town hall gathering called by Suarez. By then, they’ll know if voters approved the cultural money under the Miami Forever bond, which city lawyers are currently studying to see if it can be used to fund improvements at a property owned by the state.

Combine that money with what’s already available, including financing from the Miami Parking Authority for a planned parking garage, and Eidson’s Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation would only have to raise half the money for its project, said Olga Granda, executive director of the foundation.

“It hits that halfway mark for funding in the project,” she said. “That makes a huge dent and a huge difference to the private side where they feel like we’re a true partner here.”

A gifted fundraiser both in politics and the arts, Eidson has helped raise money for Suarez’s campaigns and has been asked by Russell to do the same for the city commissioner’s 2018 congressional run. Both commissioners said Eidson’s political support was unrelated to their interest in using bond money for the Playhouse.

“He’s never asked for anything,” said Suarez, who said his desire for a town hall is linked to his dissatisfaction with the current plan and not a full-throated endorsement of Eidson’s plan.

Eidson wrote in an email Wednesday that he has “never given a penny to Mayor Regalado” and has received nothing in return for his support of the performing arts or for politicians in whom he believes beyond the reward of personal satisfaction. As for the county’s plan, he said it is “driven by lack of money.”

“It is an old plan, more than 12 years old now, that accomplishes little for the people of Miami,” he wrote.

For now, though, Spring isn’t waiting to see if Eidson’s vision gains support and money, or for the result of Miami’s historic preservation appeal.

“We’d love to have the appeal behind us,” Spring said, “But we’re not delaying anything we’re doing.”