To raise playhouse curtain anew, solve backstage problems
Written by Michael Lewis on September 4, 2013
Most people who give it thought agree it would be very nice – good for everyone – to save the crumbling and vacant Coconut Grove Playhouse. Headlines indicate that restoration and reopening are close.
That shows you can’t believe everything you read, unless you go deep behind the headlines. Restoration of the playhouse might be no nearer than restoration of peace in Syria – and not too much easier.
To some fanfare, the Florida Cabinet and Governor Scott last month approved a plan for Florida International University to partner with Miami-Dade County and GableStage to get the playhouse operating for the first time since it closed in 2006 just after its 50th anniversary.
In July, the county’s Finance Committee had approved a 50-year lease among the county, the state and FIU.
Taken together, it sounded like the broke-and-abandoned playhouse was on the road to reopen and stay open a long time.
Unfortunately, the deal is far from done and faces a state-imposed deadline in just over four months to clear more hurdles than an Olympics track meet. Possible, certainly, but odds are long.
First, the parties have yet to decide whether an FIU lease of the playhouse from the state, the deal that has been touted, is even the route a handover would go.
Instead, Miami-Dade might swap some undeveloped lands in the south part of the county adjacent to state lands for the site. If they know, nobody is saying what that land might be.
A land swap might relieve deadline pressure, however, because a lease faces so many barriers that it would be hard to clear them all in time.
For one thing, Miami has lots of claims against the playhouse. And while city Commissioner Marc Sarnoff says a resolution to those is being negotiated, you can’t tell what will happen with the unpredictable city commission and mayor.
Mr. Sarnoff wants a deal, but five other officials have varying agendas and an election is coming – admittedly less of a threat to a deal since Commissioner Francis Suarez backed off from a run against Mayor Tomás Regalado, but who knows?
Mr. Sarnoff says the city holds $520,000 in judgments in the deal. If so, the playhouse got off cheap, because fines it owed the city totaled about triple that, plus a $216,250 judgment the city had won.
The city wants a piece of the action in the playhouse parking plan, Mr. Sarnoff says, and “a hand in determining what the playhouse will look like and for the use of the property.” That’s a recipe for slow, painful horse-trading with a county that won’t want the city to boss it around.
Also pending are a $1.5 million private mortgage battle that might encumber land title, which could prevent any deal unless the matter were settled. The county faces a two-count lawsuit in that case.
Beyond that, three firms’ judgments against the property also encumber the title, and two very small state tax liens do the same. Presumably, all of these, totaling under $75,000, would be paid off.
Also, the county holds tax certificates for special assessments for over $26,000 that are unpaid.
The latter annoyances are merely a matter of paying thousands. But someone must also look at the list of debts of former playhouse operators to be sure they too were wiped out by payment or other means.
Everything is such a mess because the playhouse was run into the ground and everything was swept under the rug for years. To move forward, the mess must now be cleared out.
Problems would be easier to solve were there fewer moving parts. State, county, city, university and creditors all must be satisfied in four months before a new operator, GableStage, is added to the mix.
Once a deal is finally cut, whoever is in seeming control must decide what to build or rebuild at the site. As Mr. Sarnoff’s remarks show, two governments think they control that.
Then come the not-so-minor matters of financing the future to rebuild the building, reopen the playhouse and be sure it has financial stability for decades to come. Nobody is yet talking about these issues, but as the crux of any deal they must be dealt with openly.
The playhouse can again present quality regional theater. But first, the county and the city need to get their acts together – fast. The curtain rises, or falls, at the state’s Jan. 15 deadline.