Correction: A March article about a proposed cultural arts complex at Mizner Park incorrectly stated that the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corp. wanted more than five years to raise money for the project. BRADEC most recently proposed raising all funds in five years with no time extensions, and will raise specified amounts at the second and third years.
By Mary Hladky
Nearly five months after the Boca Raton City Council unanimously agreed to negotiate a deal to build a performing arts complex at Mizner Park, talks have hit a roadblock.
The sticking point is that council members have not reached decisions on key matters that would be part of any final agreement.
Council members were expected to give clear directions at a Feb. 8 workshop meeting. That would have helped city staff and the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corp. hammer out a final deal.
Instead, council members stalled. Each offered thoughts on some matters, but no consensus was reached.
“We are not here to negotiate all the deal points now,” said Mayor Scott Singer. He later added, “I am not ready to just say, yeah, that is great.”
City Manager Leif Ahnell added to the uncertainty when he said, “We are not prepared to draft lease terms yet.” Before that can happen, Ahnell said the city must hire an expert who would advise city staff and the council.
Asked by council member Monica Mayotte whether city staffers had identified the expert they will hire, Ahnell said they had not.
“Why wouldn’t we have experts ready to go?” council member Yvette Drucker asked.
Ahnell said staffers have been working on other projects that they had not anticipated, such as setting up a COVID-19 vaccination center, when the city unexpectedly received 200 doses to administer in January.
There also was no clarity on why the matter was on the agenda.
Ahnell said BRADEC asked him to put it there. But Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke disagreed, saying that she and Mayotte wanted it on the agenda.
In the midst of the discussion, BRADEC President Andrea Virgin said that her understanding was that council members were expected to reach a consensus on major terms of the deal to help speed negotiations.
“I am sorry if there was any misunderstanding,” said City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser.
“I think there was an expectation that we have not met,” O’Rourke said, acknowledging that the council had not issued direction.
Contacted after the meeting, Virgin said, “We absolutely support the city in seeking any expert counsel on the matter.
“We just ask, in consideration of the fact we are a nonprofit that has expenses every month that are funded by resident donors, that the City Council urge staff to keep the process moving in an efficient manner.”
All five council members supported retaining an expert to protect the city’s interests, but Mayotte and O’Rourke said they wanted this to be done quickly.
“Maybe we should have had that before today,” said council member Andy Thomson.
Thomson brought up the matter again at a Feb. 22 meeting, saying that BRADEC wanted to know the scope of the expert’s work, how soon the expert would be hired, and how the project could move forward in the meantime.
Council members rehashed everything discussed two weeks earlier, but once again issued no direction to staff on terms of a final agreement with BRADEC.
They also did not reach a decision on reducing the scope of the expert’s review to speed up getting that person’s report.
But Mayotte and O’Rourke again pressed Ahnell to move quickly. “I don’t want this process of hiring a consultant to unnecessarily delay the project,” Mayotte said.
O’Rourke echoed Thomson’s comment at the previous meeting that she did not understand why the hiring of an expert wasn’t done months ago.
Under questioning by Mayotte, Ahnell said it should take no longer than four weeks to get the expert on board.
Regarding limiting the scope of the expert’s review, Ahnell said, “It doesn’t make sense to limit what the consultant looks at.” He said he would tell council members how long the review would take “as soon as possible.”
The council informally heard from one expert in October. It did not go well.
Singer had asked an economist he met while in college to offer his thoughts on the project.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, delivered sharp criticisms, saying that BRADEC’s statements that the project does not pose a financial risk or cost to the city and will generate a big economic benefit “are not accurate.”
Brett Egan, president of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management and a BRADEC project consultant, responded forcefully, saying Zimbalist had made “many, many misleading and blatantly inaccurate statements.”
Singer said he had not known what Zimbalist would say and it was not his intent to torpedo the project. He apologized to Virgin, Egan and Zimbalist.
BRADEC’s proposal to build The Boca Raton Center for Arts and Innovation — which would cost $121 million, including an endowment fund and reserves — calls for completely renovating the existing 3,500-seat Mizner Park amphitheater, and building indoor and outdoor performing arts spaces, a rooftop terrace and more parking.
The project, supported in concept by the City Council, would be financed by donations from cultural arts supporters and corporations that have long wanted such a facility in the city.
BRADEC wants a ground lease on 3.6 city-owned acres in Mizner Park where the project would be built. The terms of that lease are the subject of the negotiations, and six key terms of the lease are what Deputy City Manager George Brown and BRADEC expected the council to weigh in on.
• BRADEC wants a 99-year lease. City staff wants a shorter term of between 30 and 50 years.
• BRADEC leaders most recently proposed raising all funds in five years with no time extensions, and will raise specified amounts at the second and third years.
• The amount of money that would have to be on hand to fund the endowment, working capital, and maintenance when shovels hit the ground and when the complex opens.
The print version of this article incorrectly stated that BRADEC wanted more than five years to raise money for the project.