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. 

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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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