After 21 years at 711 N. Orange Ave., Winter Park Playhouse is on the clock to find a new home. But, according to Executive Director Heather Alexander, the show is far from over.
“We learned of the building owners’ intent to sell a week ago,” she told the32789. “Because we have our ’23-’24 series already announced and subscriptions purchased, I immediately asked for a one-year lease extension through August of 2024 to allow the organization time to come up with a plan for a new home.”
The Winter Park Playhouse is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and the only professional musical theater in Central Florida. It has operated from the same location since its first performance, and the yearly production schedule has grown to includes six Mainstage Musicals, Spotlight Cabarets, and the Florida Festival of New Musicals.
The relocation plan was set in motion during the March 8 city meeting as commissioners discussed the future of a half-acre activation space within the Progress Point project. The parcel, which had previously been approved for development upon the completion of the park, was under consideration for a small business incubator before the city learned of the playhouse predicament. Commissioner Sheila DeCiccio spoke in favor of a relocation onto the activation space so that the playhouse can remain on Orange Avenue; however, others on the commission expressed uncertainty about developing the parcel.
“I’m intrigued by the thought of (having) the playhouse there, but I really would like for it to remain a green space,” said Commissioner Kris Cruzada, who was also concerned over the possible cost of new construction.
“This is not something the city would be paying for,” said DeCiccio. “We would give them a land lease, they would completely pay for building, it’s not something the city would be paying any money into.”
Mayor Phil Anderson voiced concerns over the amount of time necessary for planning and development, and the overlap with ongoing city projects.
“I’m a little reluctant to move rapidly on this particular parcel when we have the old library in front of us,” he said, referring to the impending start of a new RFP process for the reuse of the 43-year-old building. He added that developing the Progress Point site would involve, “new construction, a new parking parameter, on top of coordinating with the buildout of the new park facility.”
Public comments were all in favor of saving the playhouse, but the majority hoped another location could be found, and that Progress Point would be kept as a park with no new construction on the activation space.
“We want to be in Winter Park – we do not want to be the Winter Park Playhouse located in Maitland,” said Playhouse Board member Dr. Judith Marlowe, who addressed commissioners during public comments. “We are not planning to occupy the entire park just as Orlando Shakes does not occupy the entire park where they are located, just as the Museum of Art does not obliterate Lock Haven Park.”
“We are all about this community, we founded this theater to give back,” said Alexander during an emotional speech in which she cited the playhouse’s $1.9 million economic impact and the 30,000 guests it welcomes each year. “They spend money here in the city,” she said. “They dine, they shop, they buy gas – many of them are introduced to the city for the first time.”
Alexander and Marlowe stated that the Progress Point location, which is across the street from the current playhouse address, would keep the organization within an established support system of neighboring businesses that promote and benefit from one another. Fred Thimm, owner of Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen, also spoke in favor of the relocation.
“I think it would be an absolute shame and a detriment to our little community of businesses to have them be forced to go somewhere off of Orange Avenue, or possibly out of Winter Park,” he said.
“I don’t see this as ‘whether’ we help them,” said Commissioner Marty Sullivan. “It’s ‘how’ we help them stay here in this city.”
Suggestions to move the playhouse into the old library building were tempered by Vice Mayor Todd Weaver, who pointed out that an extensive redesign would be necessary to raise the ceilings enough to accommodate a theater design. Commissioners voted to review options and continue the playhouse discussion during an April 13 workshop that would begin with a discussion of the new RFP for the old library building.
“We are not closing our doors,” said Alexander. “We will find some kind of solution to this problem, but we really need the city’s support on this one.”