The Coconut Grove Playhouse doesn't look like a building that's worth over $20 million. After nearly six years of disuse and neglect, its windows are broken, its sides are graffiti-tagged, and pieces of the building are literally falling off.
But $20 million in Miami-Dade county bond funds have been allocated to restore the historic site. The problem: The playhouse board of directors refuses to return the building to the county without being forgiven the massive debt it racked up since taking ownership in 2004.
Meanwhile, the Coconut Grove Playhouse is dying a slow death, says resident, actor, and member of citizens' group Give It Back, Nathan Kurland.
"In the last three months, it's been broken into by vandals seven times," he says. "Chunks are literally falling off the theater. There's a danger element, a safety element. It's the entrance to Coconut Grove, and it's ... falling apart."
But with a new campaign and rally in the works, Give It Back is trying to change that.
The blame for the current standstill, Kurland says, lies with the playhouse's board of directors, who racked up $4.3 million in debt and then simply shut the place down. "They took their free tickets and ate their dinner, and weren't cognizant or turned their eye to the fact that this wasn't making money. It was losing money to the point where they shut their doors."
According to a deed
restriction, the property must be used for theatrical productions or
theater-related uses, or its ownership reverts to the county or the
state. But the board is unwilling to relinquish the building without being forgiven their debt, and neither Miami-Dade nor the state of Florida is willing to pick up the tab. It's essentially a hostage situation, Kurland says. "There's no personal responsibility for that debt to accrue. They're not going to let it go to anyone."
And that's sad, he says, because Miami-Dade County allocated $20 million in bond money to the reconstruction and restoration of the playhouse. But until the county owns the building, it cannot renovate it. Last month, the Miami Herald reported that commissioners passed a resolution to clear the title to the property, a necessary step in the process of taking over the playhouse. But the debt still hangs in the balance.
In the meantime, Kurland says, the once magnificent playhouse is falling apart. "Scaffolding fell off the side of the wall last week," he says, noting that the building is now a safety hazard to passers-by. "There have been incidents of vandals breaking things, children smoking dope and busting windows." The building itself is a historic treasure, built in 1927, but these days it's a shadow of its former self.
And what's worse, Kurland says, there's valuable memorabilia inside its walls that's suffering from neglect. "There's over 50 years of priceless memorabilia -- photographs, Playbills, letters, all kinds of things -- now covered in rot and mildew. At any time they could have taken this memorabilia out of the theater and into storage. From what I know, we've lost over half of it already from decay."
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Kurland says that he himself has offered to move the items to a safer storage facility, and received no response from the board. "I don't believe they've even met for over a year," he says. New Times reached out to Jorge Lopez, Coconut Grove Playhouse board member and attorney, but received no response.
So Kurland, along with other concerned citizens of the Grove, have formed the group Give It Back and are taking the fight to the streets. Members have already begun tying yellow ribbons around trees all over the neighborhood -- "We have over 300 trees tied so far," Kurland estimates -- and will be passing out lawn signs, buttons, and rubber bracelets at this Sunday's Gifford Lane Art Stroll. And that's all in advance of a major demonstration scheduled for April 2, taking place right outside the playhouse. "We're hoping to have 1,000 people there," Kurland says, a number that includes invited officials like Mayor Carlos Jimenez and County Commissioner Xavier Suarez. Kurland's keeping event specifics under wraps, but promised a visually arresting display to take place at the demonstration.
Give It Back's demonstration takes place Monday, April 2, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.