Olympia Theatre / Miami, FL

The Miami Herald

Thursday March 24, 2011

City of Miami gives trust the keys to cash-strapped Gusman

by CHARLES RABIN; crabin

Miami’s historic, publicly owned Gusman theater, crippled by city budget cuts and mired in political squabbling, got a golden chance at resurrection Thursday.

With a quick 5-0 vote, Miami commissioners handed the Gusman’s keys to the Olympia Center Inc., a new, semi-autonomous trust formed by a group of community leaders who will manage and raise money for the 85-year-old Flagler Street landmark with little interference from politicians.

The trust’s first goal: To raise $10 million to sturdy up the iconic theater’s finances and close a $475,000 annual budget gap that opened up when the city last year stopped subsidizing its operations.

“Today is a good day for the city of Miami,” said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, who helped cobble together the plan with well-connected ad executive Herman Echevarria, who will head up the trust. “What you’re about to vote on is a perfect example of public-private partnership.”

Formally known as the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, the 1,567-seat theater was built as a movie-house in 1926 with a dramatic interior recalling an Italian castle. Long a linchpin in plans to revive downtown Miami, it has served as the principal venue for the Miami Film Festival.

The theater, along with a companion tower, was donated to the city in 1975 by philanthropist Maurice Gusman with the stipulation that it be run by the city’s parking authority. Gusman didn’t want his jewel run by elected leaders beholden to a public that might question spending money on the arts. But its charter prevents the Miami Parking Authority — which turns over to the city more than $5 million in profits each year — from spending money on the theater. Instead, the city had provided the theater an annual operating subsidy amounting to about a third of its annual $1.4 operating budget, but cuts to make up a steep city deficit ended that.

The new trust can seek grants that are available only to nonprofit groups, a fundraising approach not open to the theater in the past, officials said. Echevarria and trust officials also hope to expand performances at the theater, which critics say has been underused.

Echevarria said he aims to secure financial commitments from music entrepreneur Emilio Estefan, among others, to secure the theater’s long-term survival.

“We all said it would be terrible to close a theater that has so much history,” he told commissioners Thursday.

Echevarria, chief executive of BVK/Meka, the Miami arm of a national advertising and marketing firm, is a former 12-year Hialeah councilman and a veteran civic leader. But Echevarria had never set foot inside the Gusman auditorium prior to last year, when he helped put on a show there. He was hooked.

When he learned of the theater’s troubles, he contacted Gusman Director Margaret Lake.

“He said meet me in my office and said, let’s go see the mayor,” said Lake.

The agreement allows the Olympia Trust to operate Gusman for 15 years, with three additional 15-year options.

Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, in which whose district the Gusman resides, said the move would be a boon for the entire community.

“If it’s successful, Flagler’s successful. If Flagler’s successful, Biscayne Boulevard is successful. It’s almost like a good virus spreading,” Sarnoff said.

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  1. Harry Blanton-Binkow

    My mother, Norma Lee Blanton, and her friend Vanette Mohr, worked at this theatre as young woman, 1950’s.

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