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Afashee Theatre misses deadline

Loss of grant puts Renaissance at Carver Square Project further from reality

Photo: Photo by Aldrin  Capulong, License: N/A, Created: 2011:03:11 12:09:29

Photo by Aldrin Capulong

Bad sign: The site of the much-touted Renaissance at Carver Square is still just a vacant lot

On April 28, 2009, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners approved a $125,000 grant for stage dimmers, a video camera and other high-tech equipment for a 320-seat performing arts venue at 701 W. Church St. called the Afashee Theatre. The theater hadn't been built yet, but it was to occupy the ground floor of a much larger development: an 11-story, nearly 300,000-square-foot building dubbed "Renaissance at Carver Square." Named after a movie theater for African Americans that operated at that location during the 1950s and '60s, the mixed-use project promised a parking garage, restaurants, retail space, condominiums and economically speaking, a much-needed injection of capital and jobs for the downtrodden Parramore area.

The county's donation to the theater would begin to be paid out when construction on the building was complete. Construction was scheduled to begin in June 2009, according to the grant application, but today the property is still a fenced-in grass lot with no construction equipment on the premises. The only visible activity is from birds making their perches atop a faded sign bearing a concept drawing of the Carver Square project and a heading that reads, "COMING 2010."

On March 1, the theater failed to meet its third and final deadline from Orange County to supply proof, through signed financial agreements with lenders, that the Renaissance at Carver Square would actually be built. The lost grant from Orange County, however, is only pennies compared to Orlando's ongoing stake in the development: In October 2008 the city pledged $17.5 million to the project developer as an "economic incentive" for the Carver Square project, $5.2 million of which was devoted to the Afashee Theatre. Despite having more than half of the $32 million cost paid for by the city, the project remains in limbo. According to Afashee Theatre Chairwoman Veronica Anderson, the tight lending market is the only obstacle standing in the way of the construction of the "shovel ready" project. But a closer look reveals other problems with the development, such as inexperienced management distracted by other projects and a manager who was previously implicated in the mishandling of public money.

To date, the only other investor in the project is the Black Business Investment Fund of Central Florida (BBIF), a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that lends to minority-owned businesses and receives annual subsidies from both Orange County and the City of Orlando. The president and CEO of the BBIF, Inez Long, is also the manager of the project's development team, Carver Theatre Developers LLC. The development company is owned by the Black Business Capital Financing Corporation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit also headed by Long. She has no prior experience as a developer.

The BBIF has committed $2 million to the Renaissance at Carver Square; an additional $12.5 million still needs to be raised from other lenders to cover the remaining cost of the project. On March 1, Anderson, who's also a lawyer and president of Anderson and Associates P.A., sent a letter to Orange County forfeiting Afashee's claim to the cultural facilities grant; she attached three "letters of support" from lenders - Urban Trust Bank, BankFIRST and Stonehenge Capital Company - to demonstrate the project's current financial backing. All were written in February of this year, but none express any solid commitment to the project. Only one, from Stonehenge, provides a concrete number - ­$1.6 million - but only states the company is "considering" the investment.

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