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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

Project spokeswoman Nancy Schwalb says the financial freeze due to the economic 
downturn has a silver lining: construction costs have plummeted, so $14.5 million has been shaved off the estimated cost of the Carver Square project since it was first budgeted in October 2008. She predicts that within three months, the project will have "moved forward." "Basically, this is like any other real estate deal," she says. "They're all waiting right now for banks to commit."

Schwalb was the only person associated with the project who would speak about it at length. Inez Long declined to discuss it, and neither Veronica Anderson nor city Commissioner Daisy Lynum, District 5, who sits on the BBIF's board of directors and was instrumental in securing the city's $17.5 million economic incentive agreement, returned multiple calls to their offices.

Downtown developer Craig Ustler, president of Ustler Development Inc., says he acted as an unpaid consultant to the Carver Square project for several years; he guesses that Long and the BBIF may be too occupied with their regular duties to pull the project together. "They've done a decent job of coordinating it all, but I get the impression that they're also always working on other stuff," he says.

Long is also active in other business pursuits, at least according to state business records. In addition to managing Carver Theatre Developers, she owns the 
Corlee Water Corp. bottled-water company, sits on the board of directors of the Guardian Care nursing home (as does Lynum), and is the registered agent for the I. Financial Group, a company that lists Long's home in Winter Garden as its principal address.

Long's bottled-water company gained attention in February 2008 when her husband, Fitzhugh Long, was fired from his position as Orange County minority recruitment manager after it was discovered he didn't notify supervisors that his wife had obtained county catering contracts.

Anderson has also made headlines in the past: In 1999, she resigned from a top post at the state's minority business office after an internal investigation found she had steered $10,000 toward a minority business trade group of which she was the vice president.

The City of Orlando has been more forgiving of the project than Orange County, even though it has already paid out $878,045 to the developer for the "upfront costs" of planning and designing the building. A January 1, 2010, deadline for the developer to show that it has secured the remaining loans passed with no punishment from the city, and the city has not passed a second amendment extending the deadlines. According to city spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency is "currently working with a consultant to do a third-party analysis of the project looking at current market and economic conditions to determine what conditions need to be to move the project forward as it is 
currently planned."

Despite the economic gloom, Schwalb is optimistic about the fate of the Carver Square project, and in particular, the Afashee Theatre: "It's going to be nationally respected from an arts standpoint, and it's going to be an amazing asset for Central Florida and the black community," she says. When asked about the lost $125,000 grant from Orange County, Schwalb says that the theater can simply apply for it again at a later date.

Terry Olson, director of Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs, says this is possible, but also says that the experience with the project's first grant application will play a role in the decision. "Their history is considered in every application," he says. "I can't say how people would respond."

But that's a long way off, and until then, the Afashee Theatre will continue its existence solely on paper: "There might be a jazz trio on a Sunday," reads the theater's website. "In the evening on Wednesday, there might be an independent film."

Or there might not be.

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