Old School Square founder makes last gasp plea to save ‘heartbeat of our town’

Old School Square founder makes last gasp plea to save ‘heartbeat of our town’

She founded Delray Beach’s venerable Old School Square arts and entertainment venue 32 years ago. Now Frances Bourque is desperately trying to maintain her role over the center.

In August, city officials dumped Old School Square’s management and terminated its lease. In an open letter to city leadership, Bourque pleaded to sit down for a workshop to save it.

“It has been a month of tears, not only for me but for the many people who love and support OSS,” she wrote Monday evening. “The City’s hasty and shocking decision to terminate our lease has shattered our confidence and trust in a relationship we have had with the City for over 32 years.”

The cultural centers’ supporters protested outside City Hall in August. Critics also addressed city commissioners during a public meeting, and a petition titled “Save the heart & soul of Delray Beach: Old School Square Center for The Arts, Inc.!” garnered over 10,000 thousand signatures.

Old School Square is home to the Crest Theatre, Cornell Art Museum, an art school and more. Much of the opposition seems to revolve around fears that the institution could disappear.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia said Old School Square itself is not in jeopardy. She just wants a different organization to run it and make it more vibrant, she previously told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

City Manager Terrence Moore responded to the letter at Tuesday’s city commission meeting, where he announced Parks and Recreation will manage events scheduled on the grounds from October 2021 through January 2022. That includes upcoming weddings, bat mitzvahs, and a dog event, according to Parks and Recreation Director Sam Metott.

“We’re going to step in and make sure that those things happen with very little hiccup,” he said.

Parks and Rec supervisor Danielle Pearson will be the point person for weddings and other special events, he said. The parks department already helps host more than 80 weddings a year at the city’s golf course, and comes with a cache of experience and contacts, he said.

City leaders said Old School Square had violated the terms of its lease, failed to present required financial information to the city, began renovations without the proper permits and failed to attract a diverse range of talent to perform there.

In her letter, Bourque addressed what she called “shortcomings and challenges,” and wrote that she has “publicly shared them and apologized for not meeting the expectations we all have for the organization.”

And she stressed that rumors that OSS refused discussions with the City are not true.

“We have always been able to find a way forward. That’s the Delray way... Until now. We desperately want to reset the current sad course of events,” Bourque wrote. “We want to work out our differences so we can resume our mission which is and always has been serving the community.”

Some Delray residents, dissatisfied with abruptly canceled concerts and other events, shared that fresh management is just what the cultural center needs.

Richard Goetz recalled how he showed up at Old School Square for a Bronx Wanderers show on Oct. 1.

“The place was dark. No notice that the show had been canceled,” he wrote in an email.

He wrote that a posting from the musical group said they had recently canceled and that customers should request ticket refunds through Old School Square. He called for his refund and was instructed to email an information line, which he said went unanswered.

“This situation is wholly unprofessional and ridiculous,” he wrote. “Refunds for canceled shows should be immediately given and clear answers on future shows.”

A couple who owned their condo in Delray Beach for 40 years had over $300 in concert tickets that were canceled because of the pandemic, according to Andrea Jenniches. “We phoned, emailed, reached out to board members: no response,” she wrote in an email. “This went on for well over a year. Finally we were told that we’d have to wait for the concerts to be rescheduled.”

Jenniches and her husband Bart sold their condo and left the area, she said.

“As far as I am concerned these bleeding hearts made a fortune doing nothing. They are and always have been an unorganized group of folks with good intentions and little business sense,” she wrote. “Personally, they’ve overstayed their welcome. I for one am happy to see a little justice here.”

Bourque described compromises between the city and the cultural center in the past. She described how she led a group of “dedicated citizens” to obtain the property from the School Board and secured funds to restore dilapidated buildings. “As a result, we turned Old School Square into a thriving cultural center, the heartbeat of our town,” she wrote. “That work by a committed group of volunteers became the impetus that led to the renaissance of our entire City.”

They were awarded Historic and Preservation Grants from Florida and hosted fundraisers, eventually gifting the buildings and grounds to the city, she wrote. They requested the responsibility to operate as a cultural art center and agreed to pay rent of $1 a year. “That was acceptable, acknowledging the millions of dollars of annual economic activity we create along with the millions of dollars we had provided and would continue to provide to restore and operate these treasured buildings,” she wrote.

She highlighted the “human cost” of the decision. “We now find ourselves in the process of telling brides that they cannot fulfill their dream of being married on our beautiful campus. We are now forced to cancel arts classes and shows, disappointing artists, students, and loyal patrons. We are now forced to let go of staff, some with over 20 years of faithful service, which has been heartbreaking,” she wrote.

“We are now seeing the hearts of our devoted volunteers, members, and donors broken,” she wrote, adding that the decision to terminate the lease “lacked fairness and due process.”

“Together we can right the decision that adversely impacts virtually everyone in our town,” she wrote.

Staff writer Austen Erblat contributed to this report.

Brooke Baitinger can be reached at: bbaitinger@sunsentinel.com, 954-422-0857 or Twitter: @bybbaitinger