KEY LARGO -- The $10.8 million Murray E. Nelson building is billed as a "Government and Cultural Center," but the "culture" aspect appears to be too pricey.
Since the February 2009 opening of the Nelson Center at mile marker 102, bayside, only two cultural groups -- the Key Players and the Miami Acting Company -- have rented the auditorium to stage productions. Representatives from both organizations say rental charges are too steep.
In April the Miami Acting Company, under the direction of Ocean Reef Club resident Debra Ginsberg, staged "The Professionals" at the Nelson Center auditorium from April 19 through May 2.
After paying $3,500 for six shows and four rehearsals at the hall, Ginsburg was billed May 13 by the county for $4,934.40 in additional costs. She says she is contesting the charge.
Monroe County Public Works Senior Administrative Assistant Marcia Bassett says Ginsburg's company used the auditorium for more hours than originally scheduled.
"There was also a math mistake that resulted in the higher billing," she said.
Ginsberg said she would not be bringing her company back to the center.
"We were hoping the Murray Nelson Center would be our home," Ginsberg said. "We were going to start a kids' theater and provide acting classes. But they are more expensive than a state-of-the-art theater in Miami."
The Miami Acting Company plans to stage a performance of "Chicago" at the 450-seat Robert Russell Theater at the Alper JCC in Miami. The total cost, says Ginsburg, will be $1,500 for three performances, including rehearsals.
She also says the Nelson Center lacks amenities needed for staging a large production. In 2007, the County Commission eliminated theatrical lighting and sound and other items to reduce construction costs by $2 million.
"It is impossible for any acting company to use [the Nelson] facility," Ginsburg said. "They don't have a green room or rest rooms for the actors. It is not worthy of the title of a theater."
Last November, the Key Players, a local non-profit thespian group, presented six performances of the play "Don't Hug Me" at the Nelson Center. Four rehearsals were also held. The total bill was $3,500. Their leader, Tom Butler, said the troupe lost money on the production.
"The fact that the theater cost was high caused us to raise ticket prices," he said. "When we did, the attendance fell off and we lost money. We normally charge $18 a ticket but had to raise it to $25."
Butler recalled several conversations with the late Commissioner Nelson, who spearheaded the effort to build a government center in Key Largo.
"The original idea was we'd have a place for the Key Players to do our shows without paying an arm and a leg," he said. "If it were affordable, we'd use it again."
Instead, the Key Players have been presenting plays at the Key Largo Lions' Club, a venue that Butler says is affordable for a small organization.
"The Lions' Club lets us do rehearsals for free," he said. "We had to pay for every rehearsal night at the Nelson Center."
Nelson's widow, Mary, who now resides in North Florida, says she is "outraged" that the costs have become prohibitive for some groups.
"That was Murray's dream," Mary Nelson said. "Everyone in the community wanted that as a cultural center. I understand that the county has to cover costs. [But] it's ridiculous that it's priced out of range. Taxpayer's money paid for all of this and it should be made available to the community. Somewhere along the line there is something wrong with this."
Bassett, however, says the charges are justified.
The county, which has non-profit status, is not allowed to make a profit on renting the facility, and only charges an hourly rate for utilities and maintenance staff.
"Our intention is to break even," she told the Free Press. "When only the actors and their company are here, we don't have as much cleanup as when there are 300 people here for a play."
A fee schedule shows that minimum costs for after-hour or weekend uses of the auditorium are $71.12 per hour for rehearsals and $78.12 per hour for productions. The county, however, requires additional paid maintenance workers for rentals over one hour.
Local arts organizations say the hourly charges, when combined with additional county staff, make productions at the center cost-prohibitive.
Despite a lack of use of the center, the county plans to increase after-hour and weekend rental costs by $16.44 per hour beginning Oct. 1.
"We have been tweaking this all along," Bassett said.
County Mayor George Neugent, who said he was disappointed that local groups are not using the auditorium, expects a time to come when the center is an ideal venue. But for now, the economy dictates costs, he said.
"This is a sign of the times," he said. "I would hope it gets used. Somebody needs to get all the information and bring it to the [County Commission].