Nonprofit Leader Seeks Co-op Space for Local Arts Groups

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Central Florida Vocal Arts Executive Director and longtime Winter Park resident Theresa Smith-Levin is advocating for the creation of a co-op-style facility to meet the growing needs of the local arts community. She has a firsthand understanding of the need for space as her own organization must find rehearsal and meeting facilities through partnerships with local groups including the Center for Health & Wellbeing and St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church.

Theresa Smith-Levin

Her inspiration for cooperation stems from the Orange County Arts Ecology Study: a report based on 137 survey subjects that included 85 arts organizations, county and city government officials, individual artists, and community arts supporters. The findings, published last year, noted the growth of local arts offerings and a diverse audience base, but cited difficulties in securing affordable rehearsal and studio space.

“It would support multiple arts organizations in a collaborative, conservatory-style environment,” Smith-Levin told the32789 of the concept, which would house administrative offices, rehearsal facilities, classrooms, and studios. “We’re not looking to create a new theater or performance space,” she added. “We are aiming to fill the need for the space required to run an organization and to sharpen performance skills and creative talent.”

Jennifer Evins

According to United Arts of Central Florida CEO Jennifer Evins, the county-wide demand for arts-related programming has grown faster than the availability of space necessary to provide it. “We don’t have to build a Dr. Phillips Center every time we need a new arts space,” she said. “It’s classroom space, production space, space to build theater sets – all of that is in high demand by individuals and organizations.”

The list of co-op partners currently includes Opera del Sol, Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Emotions Dance Company, but more are welcome. “We’re all of the mindset that, by working together, we’ll all be in a better position to mitigate risk and provide something that has transformative potential for the community,” said Smith-Levin, who has also enlisted the help of Central Florida Community Arts CEO Terrance Hunter.

Terrance Hunter

“As organizations that share similarities in mission, we also face a lot of the same challenges,” Hunter said. He also notes recommendations of the Arts Ecology study to identify vacant community spaces that could be repurposed for arts groups. In 2018, Central Florida Community Arts established a venues committee tasked with identifying specific needs for performance and rehearsal spaces and helping facilitate solutions for local arts groups. Rising lease rates and short-term contracts have narrowed options for long-term solutions, but Hunter believes that Winter Park could offer the perfect set of circumstances for a shared-venue concept. “It makes sense as a location for an art co-op space given the city’s robust support of the arts and its concentration of arts organizations,” he said.

To that end, Smith-Levin summarized her plan in a letter of interest to Winter Park City Commission for the reuse of the former library building. She included a request for a minimum ten-year lease, an offer to refit the entire building, a plan to stick to the existing parking allowances, and a list of potential funding sources. However, the detail that Smith-Levin believes would moot the proposal is a request for the city to fund the effort of bringing the structure up to code.

The 44-year-old building, located at 460 E. New England Ave., has been vacant since Winter Park Library moved into its 1052 W. Morse Blvd. location in October of 2022. The city set a list of parameters for its reuse that ranges from parking restrictions and a preference to keep the building intact, to requiring a new lessee to assume the full cost of refurbishment. As a result, only two responses – the first from Harbert Realty Services and the second from SOAR Space Museum – were received during two RFP solicitation periods. Both were turned down due to the applicants’ inability to meet the city’s financial expectations, but the Harbert proposal included an estimated cost of $14 million for code-compliance upgrades.

Smith-Levin says a capitol campaign to raise funds to refit a code-compliant building is one thing, but the additional cost of bringing a building up to code is simply out of reach for many organizations. “As a nonprofit, you’re not trying to compile those kinds of funds,” she said. “We would love to use (the library building), but I just don’t think the commission is ready to make decisions that would make that feasible.”

While Smith-Levin’s plan is still in the formative stages, she is broadening the search to include areas beyond Winter Park in the hopes of finding a municipal or private partner willing to assist in the procurement of a suitable space. However, she hopes to find a solution close to, if not within, the Winter Park city limits as a matter of convenience for its evolving arts community and for local residents hoping to work with and learn from its members.

“We’re talking about a space where people of all ages could come, regardless of financial means, to be inspired,” she said. “To work together to realize their greatest potential through art exploration.”

Central Florida Vocal Arts and Opera del Sol merged in 2018 and have become part of the Winter Park Arts & Culture Alliance. They provide training and performance opportunities to artists of all ages and their upcoming production of Scalia/Ginsburg runs March 15-17 at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and information, go to

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