By Larry Barszewski
With the exception of Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia, a May 9 meeting between city commissioners and Old School Square’s former operators featured everyone singing from the same page.
“Excuse me if I don’t feel warm and fuzzy,” said Petrolia, the only remaining member of the commission majority that in 2021 kicked out the nonprofit Old School Square Center for the Arts from its decades-long role of running the city’s downtown cultural centerpiece.
But even Petrolia supported the recommendation of Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston that the city investigate creating a city cultural council that was referenced in a 2006 report but never materialized. The council, which the Coletta & Company report called the Delray Beach Creative City Collaborative, was to be an umbrella organization for arts and culture in the city.
“We have so many plans, so many things that we didn’t do. We really need to go back to them as a city,” Boylston said.
Boylston quoted from the 2006 report, saying the primary function of the Delray Beach Cultural Council would be “to strategically target culture as a competitive advantage and increase funding to enlarge the cultural scene, trigger innovation and creativity strategies, fund existing cultural groups and champion new initiatives to claim Delray Beach’s unique niche.”
Commissioners agreed to hold a future workshop meeting on the proposal.
Overall, there didn’t appear to be any clear objective to the meeting, other than to begin a healing process between the two sides. Commissioners expressed a desire to see the nonprofit group continue to be a force in the community, though it wasn’t clear what that role would be.
“I did not agree with the way the whole incident with Old School Square was handled,” said Angela Burns, who was one of two new commissioners elected in March who switched the commission’s leanings on the issue. “But I look forward tonight to mending fences and some open dialogue so that we can move forward in our city. We have a great cultural center and I would like to see it continue so that it is serving everyone in our community to the best of its abilities.”
The settlement to the lawsuit filed by the nonprofit in November 2021 — and the city’s countersuit — was approved in April. The only issue the settlement did not cover was the nonprofit’s efforts to acquire a trademark for the Old School Square name, which the city is challenging. That decision is before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
Patty Jones, chair of the nonprofit, told commissioners, “We look forward to being a resource for the city of Delray Beach and the community to make Old School Square the best it can be.”
Jeff Perlman, a former mayor and a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors, said the group had no demands. Both sides acknowledged that the Old School Square campus is now being run by the Downtown Development Authority — which was not invited to be part of the workshop — and expressed no desire to see that change.
“We are not here with an ask other than we would respectfully request a seat at the table,” Perlman said.
The tensions in the room were highlighted by testy exchanges between Petrolia and Perlman and between Petrolia and Frances Bourque, the nonprofit’s founder and the original driving force behind the transformation of the city’s Old School Square campus.
Petrolia, who said the campus was in the good hands of the DDA, questioned why the city would move forward reestablishing a relationship with the group given the city’s past concerns over its finances and a continuing federal investigation into the group.
After the meeting, Petrolia said she was referring to investigators looking into the possible misuse of Paycheck Protection Program funds by the nonprofit to cover salaries that were already included in grants to the nonprofit. Petrolia said she has not been interviewed in the matter, but she knows of others who have regarding the pandemic-related funding.
While Petrolia did not approve of the settlement, Bourque said Petrolia needed to live by the will of the majority on the commission and stop disparaging her organization.
“You as the leader of this group agreed to settle, as did we. It’s over. It’s over, and it’s not fair for you to continue to espouse one side, while our agreement is firmly implanted in accepting the fate of a dual agreement by which neither party is supposed to malign the other,” Bourque said. “And there is no way we can be invited to a table in which that climate continues to exist.”
But Petrolia said she would not be silenced, especially since she was limited in what she could say while the litigation was pending.
“I will continue to express my opinions as I feel fit, moving forward. I’m not bound by anything,” Petrolia said. “I didn’t make any agreement. I will continue to do that because I think it’s just as important for those that basically are going to be holding the ball here, to understand how we got to this point. We have not had that opportunity until today. So, it’s very important that the public understands what happened.”