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

DELRAY BEACH — 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 will respond to the letter at Tuesday’s city commission meeting, Petrolia 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.”

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.

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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.

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