Coconut Grove Playhouse / Miami, FL

The Miami Herald

Thursday August 4, 2011

State threatens to take back Coconut Grove Playhouse

By Perry Stein

DATELINE: August 5 2011

The state has put the owner of the Coconut Grove Playhouse on notice, warning its owners that it will reclaim ownership of the historic theater if swift action is not taken to reopen it.

The state gave the landmark theater to the nonprofit Coconut Grove Playhouse Inc. in 2004 with the understanding that it would continue to host performances. But the theater has been dormant since the nonprofit acknowledged in 2006 that it was $4 million in debt. A plan is in the works to transfer the theater to Miami-Dade County, which would restore and expand it, but the plan first requires the nonprofit to resolve the debt.

The result has been stalemate for the 1927 theater.

To break the stalemate, state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican whose district includes the Grove, sponsored a bill earlier this year allowing the state to take back property it gave away if the property isn’t used for the intended purpose for three years or longer. The playhouse has been unused for five years, and local politicians have been complaining lately that the nonprofit’s board has allowed the building to languish for far too long.

“They drove it into the ground,” Lopez-Cantera said.

Now the state is threatening to invoke the new law against the playhouse board.

In a letter sent Thursday to Shelley Spivack, the board’s chairwoman, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the state could take back the property if the property isn’t transferred to the county for renovation “in a timely manner.”

Spivack said she had not yet seen the letter and therefore would not comment on it. She has said the board has determined a process to plug the $4 million debt, but she wouldn’t explain how.

A DEP spokeswoman said the agency did not have a specific timeframe for when the state would take action, but the letter requested that the playhouse board expedite the transfer of the property to the county.

“We do know that they are working as fast as they can to clear the title and we hope that they do that soon,” said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Diaz.

Michael Spring, director of the county’s department of cultural affairs, said he hopes this new law will speed up the transfer of the property.

“I hope that it accelerates the conversations that are happening here in clearing the title,” Spring said. “One could say there is now a ticking clock.”

Lopez-Cantera said that if the debts haven’t been resolved by the opening of the state legislative session in January, he will argue to the DEP that the playhouse board has not acted in a timely manner.

“I will do anything and everything possible to make sure the playhouse is under new management or ownership and operating again as soon as possible," Lopez-Cantera said in a statement.

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