Playhouse Director Talks Options as Clock Ticks on Current Lease

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Winter Park Playhouse is preparing to end its run at the only address it has ever known. The owners of the North Orange Avenue building recently indicated their desire to sell, triggering an emergency meeting of the Playhouse Board and a search for a new location. The news came as a shock to many in the community, but for Playhouse Executive Director and co-founder Heather Alexander, it was not a complete surprise.

Heather Alexander

“We’ve been trying for years to secure a permanent home,” she told the32789. “We knew that having to renew – one lease at a time – is a precarious situation for a nonprofit, or any business to be in.”

According to Alexander, the 711 N. Orange Ave. address has remained the only affordable option since the playhouse doors opened nearly 21 years ago. The current rent of $12,700 per month is a far cry from the average $24,000 per month rents she’s seen for properties that are capable of housing a theater.

Relocation ideas have been discussed over the years between board members and partners, including a proposed move into the former Progress Energy building at 1100 W. Orange Ave. Unfortunately, a miscommunication with a former board member led to the city not learning of their intent until the building was set for demolition. A commercial realtor was consulted during a 2019-2020 search, but the effort was cut short as every playhouse resource was needed to keep the business afloat during the pandemic. Alexander grudgingly admits that the one option she has avoided is, now, unavoidably in the mix.

“A lease extension would only be until August of 2024,” she said. “It’s a difficult process to make this kind of move happen quickly so, we’re going to have to consider other locations that won’t necessarily be in Winter Park.”

The possibility of relocating outside the city inspired Alexander and Playhouse Board member Judith Marlowe to ask City Commission for assistance in finding a new property. They spoke during public comments at the March 8 city meeting, citing the playhouse’s $1.9 million impact on the local economy and the desire to remain in the city.

“Patrons bus in from other locations; they eat here, they shop here, they sleep here if they’re from out of town,” said Alexander. “We want to give back to this city, it’s our home. We named it the Winter Park Playhouse and we really intended for it to live here long beyond our tenure.”

As she negotiates an extension of the current lease, Alexander is planning for an April 13 workshop where City Commission will discuss options for a long-term land lease. The current first choice is a 10,000 square-foot activation space inside the Progress Point park project. The location would allow the playhouse to remain part of the Orange Avenue businesses community; however, many residents have already spoken in favor of keeping the greenspace free of any new construction.

The runner-up to Progress Point is the former library building at 460 E. New England Ave. The property is about to undergo a new RFP process after a bid to rehab the building into a coworking space was scrapped, but Vice Mayor Todd Weaver pointed out that the ceiling height could pose a problem.

“The current ceiling height isn’t conducive to a stage/theater venue, but can’t be ruled out as a possibility with certain modifications,” he explained to the32789. “Parking could be an issue also, depending on the use of the remaining interior space.” He adds that, in the event the building is used for workforce housing, an annex building could be built over the existing parking lot, “to house the playhouse and possibly other light-parking uses.” But the timeline of an extensive renovation or new construction may exceed the playhouse lease extension.

While she is hoping for the city’s assistance in finding a permanent home, Alexander is trying to convey the message that the playhouse is not asking for city funding.

“Most nonprofit arts groups have some type of partnership with their municipality for a long term land lease,” she said. “But we’re not looking for a handout from the city; we can afford a mortgage, we intend to have a capitol campaign and if necessary, we would build the building.”

For now, the playhouse is preparing for upcoming performances including the recently announced Festival of New Musicals in June. Alexander is focused on the clock that she is working against, and every option is on the table – save one.

“We are not closing,” she said. “Even if we have to move into an existing theater until we secure a new home; it’s not ideal, but that’s what we’ll do.”

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