By Larry Barszewski

The nonprofit group that ran Delray Beach’s Old School Square for decades wants back in — specifically to operate and program the Crest Theatre and associated classrooms on the city-owned downtown cultural arts campus.

A new City Commission majority that played no role in the 2021 decision to cancel the group’s lease — a decision made following financial controversies between the city and the group — is good with the idea. So are most members of the city’s Downtown Development Authority, which currently holds an agreement with the city to manage the entire campus on the northeast corner of Atlantic and Swinton avenues.

The DDA’s agreement goes through September 2024, with the possibility of two five-year extensions. Besides the theater, the campus includes the Cornell Art Museum, the Fieldhouse (the former gymnasium) and an outdoor performance stage called the Pavilion.

Under a proposal suggested in a Sept. 15 email from DDA Executive Director Laura Simon to City Manager Terrence Moore, which commissioners supported, the DDA’s agreement will be amended to remove the Crest Theatre from the DDA’s control. However, commissioners won’t automatically give control of the Crest Theatre back to the nonprofit. Instead, they plan to hold an open solicitation process to see if any other organizations want to compete for the job or share in the operation.

The tentative plan is to request proposals over a 30-day period and have commissioners reach a decision this year. The theater building is being renovated and the work won’t be finished until the end of the year.

“To be realistic, we’re not going to have any programming in there for this season, more than likely, because it takes time, it takes months for people to do programming for the most part,” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said at the commission’s Sept. 18 meeting.

The mostly finished renovations include work to the classrooms, kitchen and other non-theater space in the Crest building. The city is spending $1.2 million on the renovations, but commissioners were told it could take an extra $4 million to make the building usable for theater productions, in part because the former operators removed much of the theater’s electronic equipment prior to vacating the premises in February 2022.

City officials said even though the auditorium needs major renovations, it’s possible it could be used in the meantime for things like a lecture series or community meetings. There is no current plan to renovate the theater.

The former operators — Old School Square Center for the Arts — told commissioners at a Sept. 7 workshop that they have a plan to move forward with the building.

“We know that we’re ready and able to activate the Crest Theatre building, which housed the beloved Creative Arts School and the historic Crest Theatre. We already have a program planned for the new kitchen. I can’t wait to see that,” said Elise Johnson Nail, one of its board members. “We are ready right now with things, as soon as that building’s ready, to get started.”

However, regarding the theater itself, even if it were stage-ready, the nonprofit said it could take up to 18 months for performances there to start because of the lead time needed.

And the nonprofit group can’t begin negotiating for performances until it has a lease for the theater.

“Old School Square Center for the Arts is working thoughtfully on all issues pertaining to the Crest Theatre Building and is committed to working directly with the parties involved,” Board Chair Patty Jones said in an email to The Coastal Star. “If we were selected, yes, we would be able to mount shows and once again activate the Crest Theatre as we had done for decades. Since a site visit can’t be given without a CO [certificate of occupancy] and we haven’t been in the building since February 2022, we do not know the condition of the Crest Theatre and are unable to provide a timeline.”

City resident Lori Durante sued the city because the Sept. 7 workshop on Old School Square’s future included commissioners, DDA board members and representatives of the former operators — and that’s it. Durante said the city should have allowed other nonprofits to present their own proposals during the workshop for operating or making use of the Crest Theatre building.

“Equal consideration, time and space should have been given to all entities to pitch their ideas for the Crest Theatre and/or OSS especially since other entities have expressed interest and the property is city-owned,” Durante wrote in an email to The Coastal Star about the lack of inclusion of other groups in the City Commission workshop.

Durante isn’t dropping her suit just yet “because the action of issuing the public solicitation has not happened yet,” she wrote.

Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston, who voted in 2021 against kicking out the former operators, said the commission’s joint workshop with the two groups had accomplished three things:

Focusing on what the three sides have in common, sending a message that “we’re done fighting,” and starting to build a new model for Old School Square’s future.

“We’re not looking backwards. We’re not looking to undo things that we weren’t a part of or that we were in opposition to. We’re building a new collaborative model and I think this is a big first step,” said Boylston, who ran the workshop in Petrolia’s absence. Petrolia is the only voice left on the commission opposed to the former operators returning to the campus.

Petrolia was part of the majority that ousted the Old School Square group over missed deadlines for fiscal audits, accounting flaws, the renovation of the Crest Theatre building the group started without notifying the city — though the operators said pulling the necessary building permits was notice — and the group’s approval of a construction bond for the renovation work that protected the operators but not the city.

Boylston is discouraged by the amount of work that’s expected to lie ahead.

“It is disheartening to read that we have a 10-year plan in place to get back to where we were two years ago,” Boylston said.

Boylston described the DDA and Old School Square’s former operators as “yin and yang,” with the DDA having needed marketing experience for the campus and Old School Square Center for the Arts having the programming and arts knowledge.

While the DDA supports having someone else responsible for the Crest Theatre building, its board members would still like a say in the decisions that are made.

In her email to Moore, the DDA’s Simon said her board members “want to be at the table for the decision of who may get the opportunity and will have additional agreements and conditions in place surrounding our roles in marketing, narrative for the campus and programming synergies between any entities involved.”

Pati Maguire, a member of the nonprofit group’s board of directors, said she was impressed with what the DDA had accomplished in its short time in charge of the campus.

“We think the DDA has done a very good job under very difficult circumstances,” Maguire said.

In response to Durante’s concerns, Maguire said her group is willing to create opportunities for other nonprofits on campus.

“We’ve worked with other nonprofits before on programming over the 30 years,” Maguire said. “We look forward to doing that again, if given the opportunity.”

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