Performing arts center wins old library building lease over Rollins museum

Performing arts center wins old library building lease over Rollins museum

Performing arts center wins old library building lease over Rollins museum

Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts looks to fill Winter Park’s lack of live music venues

June 19, 2024

By Zoey Thomas

The Winter Park City Commission approved a proposal to turn the former public library building into a multi-cultural performing arts venue in a 4-1 vote last week. Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts won over a competing bid from Rollins College, which hoped to use the space for a new art museum.

Mayor Sheila DeCiccio cast the lone vote for Rollins – the latest twist in a more than two-year saga over the fate of the old library that has seen multiple proposals fizzle from several community groups. 

Winter Park already has 18 visual arts museums, said Blue Bamboo managing director Chris Cortez in his presentation to the commissioners. But Blue Bamboo is just the second performing arts venue in the city, alongside the Winter Park Playhouse, he said.

“Our city’s presence in the performing arts is small and shrinking,” Cortez said. “Not only will citizens of Winter Park pay to see live entertainment, if they don’t have it in Winter Park, they will go to Orlando, and they will give money to the Orlando businesses.”

Cortez founded Blue Bamboo alongside his wife, Melody Cortez, in 2016. For seven years, the nonprofit hosted local and touring performers in a 100-seat converted warehouse on Kentucky Avenue. Blue Bamboo closed the Kentucky Avenue space in December due to rent increases and has been looking for a new building for the past six months.

Blue Bamboo first expressed an interest in the old library building to the City Commission in late May as Rollins came forward with details for the museum plan. Last week, Cortez expanded on his two-phase plan for the building. 

In phase one, lasting until August 2027, Blue Bamboo plans to open the first floor for concert events, meetings, rehearsals and recording space. Blue Bamboo would then kick off phase two by opening the remaining two floors. 

Plans for the second floor include seven teaching studios. Central Florida Vocal Arts and Winter Park Chamber Music Academy have both expressed interest in leasing space, Cortez said. 

Blue Bamboo also plans to share the space with other organizations. The third floor would be mostly leasable office, rehearsal and meeting spaces. Both floors would include galleries to hang visual art.

“The tiny irony of this is not lost on me — according to our proposal, our opponents, Rollins, could apply to use the space for a nominal fee anytime they wanted,” Cortez said. “Any arts organization could. Any artist could.”

During its proposed 40-year lease, Blue Bamboo suggested paying $132,000 in annual rent during phase one and $276,000 during phase two — with a 2% increase every five years.

Before last week, Rollins College appeared as the frontrunner to secure the building lease. Rollins proposed a $275,000 annual rent with an increase every 10 years based on the average increase during the prior lease period.

Rollins has been looking to expand its art museum for several years. Previously, the college planned to build a new Rollins Museum of Art on the Lawrence Center Property down the street from the Alfond Inn. But the college hasn’t been able to raise enough money for the pricey Lawrence Center project, and moving into the old library would be a cheaper option.

“Rollins is looking at this after three and a half, four years of screwing around trying to build a building that this council approved,” said Allen Ginsburg, a former Rollins trustee who gave a presentation to the commissioners on the college’s behalf. “They don’t have the money for it. They can’t raise the money, they’ve raised about half the money.”

Moving into the old library building might be Rollins’ only option to get out of its current space, and it would be a shame to deny them that opportunity, he said. 

Unlike Blue Bamboo, Rollins proposed undertaking all renovations in one phase. It would also build a one-story gallery annex between the Alfond Inn and library building, architect Rob Schaeffer told the Commission.

Rollins Vice President for Communications Sam Stark said the college would now continue to pursue its original plan to build a new museum. 

“We felt obliged to honor the request of the city to submit a proposal for the old library,” he said in an email. “Though our proposal was a better financial offering, the City Commission chose to pursue another route. We hope it goes well for all parties. We are laser-focused on raising the funds to proceed with our approved project on the Lawrence Center property.” 

After the most recent attempt by the city to solicit proposals for the old building failed, DeCiccio said she approached Rollins about the art museum concept. 

She was the only vote in support of the plan last week, arguing it was more financially feasible, is less likely to cause parking headaches and would attract more daytime business for nearby retail shops. 

A rendering shows how the old Winter Park Library could be converted into an art museum for Rollins College.

DeCiccio expressed doubts Blue Bamboo had enough funds to address renovations needed to the old library building. 

The library needs to replace two of its four air-conditioning units, which would take $211,000 to address on the first and second floors alone, said DeCiccio, citing a city report. The elevator also needs a full replacement, she said.

“Blue Bamboo has no consistent funding source,” she said. “The city contributes $11,000 to them every year, which they still need … I’m concerned about the long-term maintenance of the building.”

Blue Bamboo’s expenses exceeded its income by over $170,000 in 2022, according to its tax filings.

The deficit occurred after Blue Bamboo received a $240,000 Shuttered Venue Operators Grant halfway through 2021 to help out after the pandemic, said Cortez. Blue Bamboo had to spend the money received by the end of 2022.

The venue spent all its grant money to pay performers by the end of the year, before the money could be revoked, he said. The funding saved the business, but it also had the unintended consequence of leaving “red ink” in the budget. Blue Bamboo posted over $166,000 in positive net income the year prior — 2021, when the grant was received.

DeCiccio also said Blue Bamboo would draw large, late-night crowds and parking issues that could deter the nearby residential area. Blue Bamboo, for its part, emphasized its shows will end by 10 p.m. and building usage will be scheduled around parking capacity.

Vice Mayor Todd Weaver gave a more optimistic picture of Blue Bamboo’s financial necessities. As an engineer with a general contractor license, Weaver assessed the library building over several visits, including some with the fire marshall, he said. He presented his findings to the commission in an inspection report. 

“Normally what I would do is, I would take pictures of defects and show it to the client, but there are so few defects in this building that I didn’t really think it was necessary,” he said.

The building is generally in good shape, with no observable plumbing or electrical defects, and the elevator could be rehauled fairly cheaply, he said, estimating the cost at $175,000. Weaver expressed confidence Blue Bamboo had the overhead necessary to complete the renovations.

Cortez said Blue Bamboo has access to up to $800,000 for first-floor renovations alone. 

Funding comes from a mixture of pledged donations from a private donor and several board members, said Cortez.

Performing Arts Matter, a Maitland-based performing arts non-profit, is listed as a co-tenant alongside Blue Bamboo. Its president, Jeff Flowers, is a board member of Blue Bamboo and pledged $100,000 for the project.

More than 20 people spoke at the meeting, most in favor of Blue Bamboo. Jack Graham, a Winter Park resident who performed frequently at Blue Bamboo with his group Jack Graham & Friends, fought tears while praising the venue.

“In my time at the Blue Bamboo, I saw, not customers or patrons at a venue, I saw a family and a home,” he said. “A little venue created at a street behind the Lombardi’s … think of the power and the contribution that could be made in the library location by a venue with that much to share.”

The lease is expected to go before the City Commission for approval next week.

Zoey Thomas is a rising junior at the University of Florida and a graduate of Winter Park High School. She is studying media production and statistics and her work has been published in The Independent Florida Alligator. When in her hometown of Maitland, Zoey enjoys catching up with her pets and visiting her favorite sushi restaurant. Please welcome Zoey as the Voice’s summer reporting intern. 

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Rollins makes pitch to turn old library into art museum

Rollins makes pitch to turn old library into art museum

Rollins makes pitch to turn old library into art museum

The college wants to add 5,000 square feet to the building rather than pursue earlier plans for new construction

May 23, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Officials from Rollins College along with developer and philanthropist Alan Ginsburg made a pitch on Thursday to take over the old city library building and turn it into the college’s art museum complete with an auditorium, educational space and a 5,000-square-foot addition.

The conversation took place Thursday at a work session among city commissioners, who have tried for years to find a suitable use for the old brick building, including two failed requests for proposals.

Rollins President Grant Cornwell, who announced his retirement earlier this year, said the college was willing to shelve more expensive plans for new construction, the latest version of which were approved by the commission last year. 

Cornwell said encouragement from Mayor Sheila DeCiccio and Ginsburg as well as a fundraising shortfall toward the $30 million for the new construction all weighed into the college’s decision to consider the old building.

“The first reason we’re here is because the mayor asked us,” he said. “… If this all came together and we could repurpose the building, that’s something we have to take seriously.”

He said donors have committed about $18 million to the project, which may cover the cost of renovating the old library and would allow a new museum to open much sooner than if the college pursued all new construction.

Ginsburg, a former Rollins trustee who has helped the college develop several projects, called himself a “pro bono developer” on the proposal and pushed for the change in plans after he was approached to help finish fundraising for the more expensive version of the project.

City commissioners appeared largely open to the idea and agreed to allow City Manager Randy Knight to begin negotiations with Rollins, which would prefer to buy the land from the city, along with several other groups that have recently expressed interest in the building.

The concept will appear for more formal discussion at the next City Commission meeting in June.

The Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts, a nonprofit music venue, recently lost its lease in Winter Park and also expressed interest in repurposing the old library into a music venue and teaching space. Jeff Flowers, a former Maitland city commissioner and chairman of the Blue Bamboo’s board, also gave a short presentation at the work session.

Commissioner Todd Weaver said the Orlando Opera as well as another group has also expressed interest in the building since the last request for proposal from the city yielded just one response.


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Will city expand parking at Library & Events Center?

Will city expand parking at Library & Events Center?

Will city expand parking at Library & Events Center?

Discussion expected at Wednesday’s meeting as city also considers lease to allow the Alfond Inn to use the old library as a valet lot

May 4, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Finding a parking spot at the Winter Park Library & Events Center is a growing challenge and commissioners this week will consider options to add new spaces while maintaining amenities at MLK Park, which serves as the backdrop to the buildings.

Staff is recommending a plan known as “Option B,” which would add 49 new parking spaces, but require the demolition of a 60-year-old rental space called Lake Hall Island near the corner of Harper Street and New England Avenue on the south side of the park.

It’s possible the facility could be preserved, but that would mean the park would lose its croquet court, which has a small, but loyal following, according to a report by city staff. Moving the croquet court elsewhere would be costly, according to the memorandum.

The cost of the staff recommendation to demolish Lake Hall Island and add additional parking spaces is estimated at about $618,000.

At least three other options exist ranging from just 14 new spaces at about $209,000 to building a new parking garage to add more than 200 new spaces at a cost of $8 million.

Meanwhile, the city is looking to formalize an arrangement that would allow the adjacent Alfond Inn to use the parking lot at the old and now vacant library building as valet spaces.

Commissioners will consider leasing the 69 spaces to Rollins College, which operates the Alfond, for $45 each per month. The total rent would be about $3,000 each month.

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Will city expand parking at Library & Events Center?

Starting Feb. 25, Winter Park Library will open on Sundays

Starting Feb. 25, Winter Park Library will open on Sundays

The new hours are part of Executive Director Melissa Schneider’s goals to expand access and services

Feb. 15, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Later this month the Winter Park Library will be open on Sundays for the first time since before the pandemic.

The new hours from noon to 6 p.m. starting on Feb. 25 are the result of increased investment in the library by the City of Winter Park through its Community Redevelopment Agency.

City Commissioners last year approved an additional $350,000 contribution to the library, which allowed Executive Director Melissa Schneider to fill an additional seven full-time equivalent positions.

The extra staff will make the Sunday hours possible along with expanded access to the library’s archives, technology and maker spaces, which were previously only available by appointment.

Schneider said there will be an emphasis on helping small businesses and entrepreneurs within the city’s CRA, which exists to help the area near downtown become more economically vibrant.

So far she said the bump in library users that resulted from the opening of the new building at the end of 2021 next to MLK Park and also within the CRA has held steady. A gala last weekend raised $200,000 for the nonprofit library.

“The first year we thought maybe this was an anomaly,” she said. “But so far we’re maintaining where we were in 2024. We’re anticipating this is going to be our biggest year yet.”

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Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Monday’s forum at the Winter Park Library was the first of the election season

Jan. 22, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Commission Seat 2 candidates Jason Johnson and Craig Russell faced off at a forum Monday night at the Winter Park Library, revealing some clear, if subtle, differences in their philosophies on questions such as what to do with the old library building, a proposal for Rollins College faculty apartments and the future of development in Winter Park. (Watch a recording of the event here.)

Stockton Reeves, the third candidate in the race, did not attend the forum. Carol Foglesong, the moderator from the Orange County League of Women Voters, announced Reeves was “caught out of town on his job and was not able get back  … so it’s not that he didn’t show it’s that the job got in the way for tonight.”

Jason Johnson shares a hug with his daughter after the forum.

That raised some confusion, however, because Reeves met in person on Monday with Winter Park residents involved in the Fix 426 effort at an Orlando office. He did not immediately respond to a question from the Voice about whether he was out of town during the forum, though he previously told the Voice he had a work conflict during the event that he was trying to reschedule.

Russell and Johnson, both first-time candidates for public office, showcased their knowledge and experience in the local community.

Both credited their children and families as their biggest accomplishments and appeared to agree on issues like examining how the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, a special downtown tax increment district that the current City Commission is trying to expand, could play a role in providing more affordable housing.

They also agreed that recent increases in pay for police officers have made the department more competitive in hiring.

Neither expressed a firm opinion when asked whether Winter Park should let voters decide whether to adopt single-member districts or carving the city into sections that each elect a representative to the City Commission. Russell, who is Black, nodded to the merits of diversity several times during the forum. Winter Park has not elected a Black commissioner in more than 130 years.

“There isn’t enough data for me to answer,” said Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High who also serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and as a trustee for the Winter Park Library. “If there’s true representation that kind of solves that problem.”

Craig Russell poses with students who came out to support him at the candidate forum.

Johnson, an attorney and current chairman of the city’s Board of Adjustments, said he’s “always in favor of allowing voters to decide” and noted single-member districts have positives and negatives and he would want more information.

While both candidates largely described their future vision of Winter Park as keeping the look and feel of the city much the way it is today, some differences emerged.

On the Rollins College proposal for 48 new apartments aimed at providing attainable housing for faculty closer to campus, Russell signaled a willingness to find a way to make it happen.

“How do we make it work?” Russell asked of the project on New England Avenue that has drawn complaints from neighbors about its density, architecture and potential shortage of parking. “I don’t think the immediate answer is no … Rollins historically has been a good neighbor to us and it’s an opportunity for something we haven’t done here in Winter Park and I’m very open to hear more about it.”

Johnson said he didn’t want to express a firm viewpoint, but seemed more skeptical.

“I do think there is a need for housing for faculty and staff in the city, so I understand why Rollins wants to do it,” he said. “But I also understand some of the residential concerns.”

On the matter of the old library building, which continues to pose a conundrum for city officials since the City Commission recently rejected a second round of proposals that came in to redevelop the parcel, Johnson said he opposed selling the land. A sale has been brought up multiple times to raise revenue for other projects.

A packed crowd listens to candidates for Commission Seat 2 at the Winter Park Library.

He said a sale is on the “bottom of my list of priorities,” because “it’s a gateway and it’s too valuable of an asset to sell off for a few dollars today. I wouldn’t’ support that right now.”

Later in the forum, Johnson brought up one idea that’s been discussed, which is to turn the land into a small park space.

Russell said he would “have to lean on a bunch of contacts that I have to learn more about that situation” and expressed concern about the building falling into disrepair.

When it comes to a general growth philosophy, Johnson appeared to express a bit more skepticism there, too.

“I think there’s a certain segment that would have you believe we need greater balance between residential and commercial tax bases,” he said. “I don’t know that I share that belief. I want to protect our neighborhoods from commercial encroachment, but I do think there are ways we can improve both the neighborhoods and the commercial vitality. We need to make sure our infrastructure is better improved and maintained.”

Russell said he wanted to talk to experts about the possibility of growth.

“We have to be able to open to listen to the possibility of growth,” he said. “We have to be open to listen to the experts who can tell us how can we solve this problem. I don’t know all the answers. I know where we can find the answers … I know there are generations that want to come back here and I’m open to listen to all ideas.”

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Performing arts center wins old library building lease over Rollins museum

Proposals for old library building fail again

Proposals for old library building fail again

The highly visible building off Aloma Avenue will remain vacant indefinitely as the City Commission considers what to do next

Jan. 12, 2024

By Beth Kassab

For the second time in a year, a proposal to transform the old Winter Park Library building on New England and Aloma Avenues has failed because of financial concerns.

City Commissioners voted 3-1 on Thursday against moving forward with the only plan that qualified for public discussion: a concept known as SOAR that billed itself as a space and science museum and learning center. Todd Weaver cast the dissenting vote.

Commissioners expressed concerns over the financial feasibility of the plan, which proposed to rent the building from the city under a long-term lease.

The decision lands the city back at the same position it found itself in a year ago — uncertain about the future of the building left empty when the new Winter Park Library on Morse Boulevard opened at the end of 2021.

Last year commissioners ended an exclusive deal with a developer to transform the old library into co-working space that also featured a café and event space.

A few months later, the commission opted to ask for another round of proposals for the site with a potential focus on workforce housing and providing workspace to local nonprofits. Only two proposals came in after commissioners pondered out loud during summer budget hearings about whether they should just sell the building to raise revenue instead. Ultimately, only the proposal for the museum met the qualifications for public discussion.

Spokeswoman Clarissa Howard said the next steps are likely to be discussed at an upcoming Commission meeting, though a date has not yet been set.





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