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'We Need to Get This Project Done': Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez On Coconut Grove Playhouse

Miami Herald
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez

There's a battle underway between Miami Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

The fight is over the future of the iconic Coconut Grove Playhouse theater. Last week, the City of Miami Commission approved a plan supported by Gimenez that would demolish and renovate a portion of the theater. Mayor Francis Suarez, who argued the county wasn’t transparent about the full cost of the operation, vetoed the plan. 

The theater opened in 1927 and for decades was a venue for traveling performers and local theater groups. In 1956, it featured the U.S. premiere of Samuel Beckett's iconic play "Waiting for Gadot."The theater has been closed down since 2006 despite attempts by private individuals to raise the funding for it to re-open. The city and county have until 2022 to re-open the theater before it's taken over by the state. 

Mayor Carlos Gimenez joined Sundial to discuss the politics surrounding the playhouse and the next steps for the county. The county is planning to file a lawsuit now in response to Mayor Suarez's veto. You can hear our related conversation with Suarez here.  

WLRN: What is the county's plan for the Coconut Grove Playhouse? 

GIMENEZ: What we envision for the Playhouse is a complete restoration of the front building of the Playhouse, which is what everybody considers to be 'the Playhouse.' The iconic image of the Coconut Grove Playhouse is from Main Avenue. (Under the county plan), that entire building will be renovated and restored to its 1927 appearance because it has actually been altered a lot since since 1927. Its functionality also will be restored. It used to be a place where there were shops on the ground floor and then there were offices on the second floor of that building and behind it.

We want to create a 300-seat theater, that will be operated by GableStage. We have a lease with FIU. We have a lease with the state. The county has a lease with the state because the state of Florida is actually the one who actually owns it. The Miami Parking Authority then will build a parking structure that is desperately needed in that portion of the Grove for the businesses. And any of the additional revenue that either the front building gets or the parking structure gets will be going into the theater to help subsidize the operations of the theater.

Miami Mayor Frances Suarez was on the program yesterday. He argued the county claimed that the plan was fully funded at $23 million, but when he looked at the numbers he found the plan was actually $50 million. Can you explain what he's talking about it?

The parking structure that I talked about, the Miami parking authority, is actually going to be doing the renovation of the front and also the parking structure. That's where the extra $28 million comes from. What he fails to realize though, is the $23 million I was talking about is taxpayer money. And so the Miami Parking Authority isn't contributing anything because they fully expect to get all that money back through parking fees. And so the people of Miami Dade County are the ones that are putting money from their tax dollars in order to renovate the Coconut Grove Playhouse.  It's a cooperative venture between Miami Parking Authority and Miami Dade County.

Is there any agreement or are you both really on opposite ends at this point?

We are actually, to come up you know at the 12th hour and say 'well I have a compromise,' well where you been for the last two years? Where have you been for the last three years for God sakes? We've been discussing this thing for three or four years and then where were you as we were trying to bring up and move our plans forward? His compromise is this: he says OK he'll give us $10 million that they supposedly have allocated. I haven't seen the $10 million. And then are there any other cost overruns? If we try to restore the back of the theate, which our cultural affairs director thinks it's an unworkable plan and will just lead to another bankruptcy. Its already happened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse on multiple occasions because the theater is too big, then who has those cost overruns? Oh well we'll share between the city and the county. Except he can't guarantee that.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.