Despite community concerns, Miami moving forward with Virginia Key Black history museum

2019 render of the Virginia Key Black history museum. 

During their last meeting, the City of Miami Commission authorized the City Manager to negotiate and execute an inter-local agreement with Miami-Dade County for the reimbursement of county funding to the City for the construction of a Virginia Key museum project.

That money – not to exceed $20.5 million – would be derived from funding from the County Development Tax Funds of $5 million and the Culture and Education Fund Project 291 of the Building Better Communities bond program of $15.5 million.

The much-ballyhooed, much-debated museum would be designed to tell the story of Miami’s segregated era and the triumphs of the Black community in the location of Miami's only public beach for "colored" residents at one time, which opened in 1945.

Last week's decision didn't come without concerns, however, especially since the public had not had the opportunity to engage in two promised meetings, one by the new Trust members and one for the community.

N. Patrick Range

N. Patrick Range.

"This is exactly what we need, receiving money from the GOB (general obligation funds)," said N. Patrick Range, past chairman for the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, "but it's like (putting) the cart before the horse.

"There's supposed to be a plan for what would take place. My understanding is that a community meeting was to take place, to discuss this plan, to allow the community to have input."

He also pointed out that there has not been a public meeting of the new Trust, either.

"To my knowledge, these things have not taken place," he said. "This is a community project, a community park; the community wants to be involved.

"Please consider restoring the Trust at this time."

In October, Commission members abruptly decided to take over the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, a 24-year-old agency responsible for managing the park with a budget of more than $1 million a year. They pointed to sloppy bookkeeping, a lack of progress, and at least one member even claimed malfeasance by mismanaging public funds, although the final audit did not show that.

circle of brotherhood

Circle of Brotherhood members at a gathering. 

"Let's restore the Trust so we can move forward," said Leroy Jones, of Miami's Circle of Brotherhood, a group primarily of Black men from all walks of life dedicated to collectively solving social ills in the community. "Let's have the community meeting ... We can all work together."

He told the Commission that how things played out when the Trust was replaced "was unfair and not right."

"We can all agree to disagree, but we have to restore the Trust, to correct the wrong that was done. And look, everybody makes mistakes, everybody does things they wish they could change ... we're all subject to human error. Let's right the wrong."

Another item on Thursday's agenda linked to the museum was withdrawn until the April 27 Commission meeting.

That resolution calls for the waiving of requirements for a competitive sealed bidding process that was "not being practicable or advantageous to the City of Miami." It would establish a contract for museum consultant services with Lord Cultural Resources Planning & Management, Inc. for a Capital Improvement Project and the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, allocating funds from that general account and other funding sources.

The item had been indefinitely deferred since October 13, when the historic museum was being discussed, and the Trust was disbanded and replaced with Miami Commission members as its nucleus.

Range said that if the Trust were to be restored, the Commission would "continue to have this oversight ... (and) the political will to help move this project along."

Virgina-Key.jpg

An aerial view of Virginia Key Beach Park. 

Back in 2001, County commissioners approved steering $5 million in convention development taxes toward construction of a civil rights museum at Virginia Key Beach Park.

In 2004, Miami-Dade County voters approved a bond program that included $15.5 million for the project.

But plans were stalled, reportedly, by bureaucratic disagreements between the city and county.

Finally, in June of 2019, Miami commissioners passed a resolution prompting the release of the $20.5 million funds that had been allotted for the project.

Among the latest ideas that have been tossed around by Commission members was to have a museum that could be an attraction for residents and tourists from around the globe, perhaps with a restaurant overlooking Biscayne Bay. Another idea was to create a more lively park with potential rides or the restoration of the mini-train to entertain kids and adults.

Proponents of the civil rights museum have spoken at previous Commission meetings, questioning why other museums, serving other cultural heritages, have been built in the meantime, including the Perez Art Museum Miami, the Frost Science Museum and the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, to name a few.

But, restoring the Trust remains the bigger issue for some in the community.

lyle muhammad

Lyle Muhammad.

Lyle Muhammad, executive director of the Circle of Brotherhood, told Commission members Thursday, "A lot of people don't understand that as an organization, we're watchmen for the community. 'Restore the Trust' is not just a slogan, it's an attempt to restore things that have been broken."

He said "three perplexing things" have stood out to him recently.

"One, dealing with the tongue ... there have been two promised community meetings that never have taken place. That's a forked tongue," he said.

"The other is the ears. There seems to be cotton in the ears in reference to having input from the community.

"And the third is the mind. Some great minds have been aligned, and God knows as we open up in prayer here all the time, if there was an invitation from those minds to work together, what could be created.

"We're not going anywhere when it comes to the public's interest and having input."

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