By Larry Barszewski

Downtown Development Authority board members will meet with Delray Beach city commissioners to discuss the future of Old School Square. However, the DDA members themselves are undecided about what their agency’s continuing role should be in bringing new life to the city’s historic cultural arts campus.

What the DDA decides may depend in large part on what commissioners are looking for at the workshop meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Arts Warehouse, 313 NE Third St.

The DDA stepped forward to help the city following the commission’s 2021 decision to oust the downtown cultural center’s longtime operator, a nonprofit called Old School Square Center for the Arts.

Commissioners complained the nonprofit group failed to provide requested audits and other financial documents, and that it started renovations of the Crest Theatre without properly covering the city in the renovation bond.

The DDA agreed to manage the Cornell Museum in December 2022, the rest of the campus in March, and it will take over scheduling of events at Old School Square’s vintage gymnasium from the city’s parks department in October.

Its contract with the city runs through September 2024. What happens then is up in the air.

Two of the three commissioners who voted to get rid of the former operators are no longer on the commission — one lost reelection and the other was term-limited — and the new commissioners don’t bear the hostility to Old School Square’s former operators that surfaced during the breakup.

The former operators got a meeting with the new commission in May, designed to begin a healing process with the group, which still has significant support among the city’s movers and shakers. The commission’s workshop with the DDA comes four months later and — as of the DDA’s August meeting — board members still didn’t know if it would be a two-way discussion or if they’d have to share time with the former operators.

It turns out it will be a three-way talk. The DDA will present its overview to commissioners and then the former operators will do the same, followed by a discussion of the short- and long-term goals for the Old School Square campus, according to the agenda later released by the city. At the DDA’s Aug. 14 meeting, it was clear there were differing opinions about the DDA’s partnership with the city.

The DDA’s newly appointed chairman, Brian Rosen, one of four people the commission voted onto the board in May, was concerned about the potential liability the DDA would face if an accident occurs on the Old School Square campus. He also fears that getting bogged down with Old School Square would take away from other DDA priorities, such as economic development.

“We have this really amazing thing, and it needs a lot of focus and love and money,” Rosen said of the Old School Square campus, on the northeast corner of Atlantic and Swinton avenues. “We could decide to create that, but that doesn’t seem like that’s really what we want to be doing because there are so many other things that are so important that the DDA has to focus on.”

Rosen is also worried about the money it will take to keep the programming going. The city plans to contribute $1 million of the DDA’s proposed $1.32 million Old School Square budget for the coming year, but it doesn’t want to underwrite the program forever.

Rosen said the DDA would have to raise millions of dollars in the future. “Now we’re talking about running a capital campaign. Do you know the time and energy it takes to raise a couple of million bucks?”

But Vera Woodson, in her last meeting as vice chair of the DDA board, pointed to the accomplishments the DDA has achieved in a little over a half-year of running things there.

Some of those were included in a City Commission presentation on Aug. 8 by Laura Simon, the DDA’s executive director.

The campus had summer events — including a Bon Jovi tribute band; a kids-oriented prince/princess Disney tribute band; a mural fest; an art installation; and the official reopening of the Cornell Museum.

The DDA has also created a website for the campus and an Instagram account that had 1,741 followers as of last month. The city’s renovations to the Crest Theatre on the campus are expected to be completed in October, with the possibility that some programming there could begin early next year.

“I know what [the DDA staff has] been able to do and accomplish and I’m so invested in the success that has been happening and what they’re able to do, and how I can see down the road of what they can continue to accomplish and grow with that,” Woodson said. “I guess I am somewhat attached to it and that’s why I fight so hard to say I’d rather the DDA take it over because there’s synergy and energy that is moving forward in a positive direction.”

A significant unanswered question is the role the Old School Square Center for the Arts has in the future of the campus. The commission has already supported the group’s being involved in some of the programming. There has also been talk that the organization could serve in a cultural advisory role.

Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston told Simon one of the keys to success of the cultural arts campus “is going to be through partners — and whether that’s partnerships with Old School Square or some of the other organizations you’re having conversations with, or it’s partnerships with us, so that we can do some of the lifting.”

The city and Old School Square’s former operators have settled a suit and countersuit stemming from the group’s ouster, but the two sides are still in a dispute over the group’s application to trademark the Old School Square name.

The group’s online site, oldschoolsquare.org, blurs the distinction between the group and the campus and could be confusing to the public. The site’s events calendar shows nothing happening on the campus, despite the programs taking place through the DDA.

Both the former operators and the DDA have Instagram accounts: The group’s is @oldschoolsquaredelray and the DDA’s is @delrayoldschoolsquare.

The DDA’s transition website for the campus, delrayoldschoolsquare.com, contains current information about Old School Square activities. The agency is also working to develop new branding for the campus.

“We said when we took over, when we came into this place we were going to change the narrative,” Simon told commissioners. “We created the marketing, reopened the Cornell Museum, we built the team to do the transition and then to fill the gaps.”

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