City Mulls Purchase of Playhouse Building as Relocation Talks Continue

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A consensus on a new home for the Winter Park Playhouse continued to evade City Commission during its latest meeting, despite a collective desire to help the organization stay in the city.

The 21-year-old nonprofit announced, in March, that it would be losing the lease on its current space at 711 N. Orange Ave. An extension will last through August of next year, and Executive Director Heather Alexander has stated that a new facility can be built without the need for city funding. However, a permanent home requires a long-term land lease with the city.

Three options emerged during more than the two months of conversations at commission meetings and city workshops:

  • A 12,000-square-foot building can be constructed over the 36,000-square-foot surface parking lot by the south end of Seven Oaks Park. The idea has been conceptualized and will not take any space away from the park, but commissioners cannot agree on whether the lot should be saved for a possible parking garage to service the park and neighboring businesses.
  • A proposed reuse of the old library property could accommodate space for local arts organizations, including the playhouse. Ideas range from retrofitting the existing building to constructing a new facility at the site; however, commission is split on whether the building should be razed or renewed. And the 12-foot ceiling requirement for the playhouse theater creates issues with a retrofitting.
  • Commissioners are considering a purchase of the existing playhouse building with a long-term lease granted to the playhouse. The building would require upgrades due to its age, but leasing additional space beyond the needs of the playhouse would generate income for the city.

New construction that includes a parking lot puts the Seven Oaks Park proposal at the top of Alexander’s wish list, but she is willing to discuss any option that the city puts forth. “At this point, we want to be considered for any possible location on city land,” she told the32789.

The proposed purchase of the current playhouse location has created its own set of options that were discussed during the May 24 commission meeting.

As a 501(c)(3), the playhouse cannot pay above market value for a property. According to Winter Park Budget & Management Division Director Peter Moore, the purchase price is also a sticking point for using CRA funds.

“The purpose of a CRA is to eliminate blight and raise tax base value,” Moore said during the May 24 meeting, adding that producing income is another acceptable use of funds. Aside from retaining the playhouse’s $1.9 million local economic impact, a long-term land lease with the organization, coupled with the leasing of additional building space, might fall under that heading if the purchase price is right. “If you do end up paying far above market value, that could hurt the argument that you are buying it for income purposes,” he said.

The city is also planning to apply for Orange County Tourist Development Tax funds to support the relocation efforts, but a decision must first be made on a new playhouse location, and the funds would not be distributed for another 11 months. City staff have reached out to the current landlords regarding a purchase price, and options will be reviewed at a future commission meeting.

Alexander was present at the May 24 meeting to reiterate the Playhouse Board’s willingness to be flexible with its options, and to fund new construction or refurbish the existing facility.

“We have been operating there for 21 years – can we do decades longer? Absolutely,” she told commissioners. “I also said all along that we weren’t expecting city dollars to fund this project – we’re looking for city land and a long-term partnership.”

Alexander has been adamant about keeping the playhouse open during the relocation process and is considering temporary sites in the event a new location is not ready in time. “There are some definite options that already have existing theaters,” she told the32789. Among the possibilities are the Trinity Preparatory School theater, Orlando Repertory Theatre, and Orlando Museum of Art.

“We’re very optimistic,” she said. “We’re just going to keep moving forward.”

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