The Miami Times

Squabble between the county and city lets Black museum languish: Each accuses the other of dropping the ball

A museum to house the history of Black Americans in Miami and Miami-Dade County’s former Blacks-only beach has been a project in search of funding for more than a decade.

The Historic Virginia Key Beach Park museum has languished, the city said, because the county needed an identifiable source of operating revenue for the museum before it could be built. Not so said the county, who blames the city for holding up the process.

Now, officials from the city and county are pledging funds and pointing fingers at Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez for holding up the museum’s build.

“The [county] mayor refused to put funds in the budget for the museum last year but that is going to change,” County Commissioner Xavier Suarez said.

But a county spokesperson said it’s the city of Miami that dropped the ball.

“We have offered to work closely with the City and the Trust to make this important project a reality and have not seen any commitment from the City to do so, as yet,” read an email from the Department of Cultural Affairs. “We remain committed to assist when they are ready and have addressed the issues outlined in the attached email.”

Ready no one seems to be since the museum hasn’t held a groundbreaking. And as time passes so does the memory and importance of Virginia Key Beach Park. “… every year fewer and fewer residents and visitors are aware of the importance of the site with the passage of time,” said the museum’s business plan. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of Black people living in South Florida under the age of 50 know the history of Virginia Key Beach Park, “and even fewer among the wider population.”

The Historic Virginia Key Beach Trust, a group established in 2000, is the steward of the historic beach park. It has overseen the restoration of the beach park, that was founded in 1945 as the county’s only place for Black people to go to the beach. As the Jim Crow south moved on so did people – to use integrated beaches. By 1979, the county gave the park to the city of Miami. Three years later, the city closed the historic beach, due to high maintenance costs, a timeline on the Trust’s web site said.

The park would lay dormant until a master plan was developed for Virginia Key and a civil rights task force mapped a vision for the historic part of the key.

Historical designation from the federal government came in 2002.

In 2003, ground broke for the “restoration and repair” of the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, that included restoring the shoreline and the native flora and fauna, and historic elements.

In 2004, the county awarded the Trust $15.5 million from a General Obligation Bond to construct the museum. But when Virginia Beach Beach Park re-opened in Feb. 22 2008, it was sans the museum.

ULTRA’s $1 million

Fast forward to December 2018. City officials turned their attention to the museum. In negotiating a lease agreement with Ultra Music Festival to use the beach park on Virginia Key and the marine stadium, Miami City Manager Emilio T. Gonzalez said a part of Ultra’s use fee would go toward the museum’s operating budget.

Ultra had its annual concert at the end of March and it proved to be a logistical nightmare for the 21-year-old electronic dance music festival’s 60,000 guests.

But the music festival’s acrimonious relationship with the city of Miami and its residents pushed Ultra to take its show on the road. Ultra Music Festival said last Wednesday it was abandoning the location and opting out of its lease.

The music festival’s lawyer preempted a discussion item that was put on Thursday’s Miami Commission agenda, to revoke its rental agreement to use facilities on the key off the Rickenbacker Causeway. Ultra had already paid its $2-million fee to the city before calling it quits. Miami commissioners ended up tabling the item since Ultra was already gone. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said he had already delivered a $1-million check to the Trust, drawn up an operating budget for the museum and was ready to break ground.

“I was ready to bring an operating budget to the county on Friday,” Francis Suarez said.

Guy Forchion, executive director of Virginia Key Beach Park Trust on Thursday said he is reviewing the ramifications of the Ultra Music Festival’s withdrawal from the agreement to return to Virginia Key in 2020.

“I can say that the Trust is appreciative of the resources that were generated from the 2019 Music Festival for the Trust’s Civil Rights Museum Project but is turning its attention to gaining City’s approval of the Trust’s General Obligation Bond (GOB) resolution set for Mid-June around June 13,” said Forchion in a statement.

“The approval of the Trust’s resolution would release public funds held by Miami Dade County for the construction of the Civil Rights Museum and various park improvements for Historic Virginia Key Beach Park. We will continue to tell the rich cultural history of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park and fulfill the public’s mandate to build the Civil Rights Museum. Completion of the Historic Beach Park master plan is at the center of our mission.”

Forchion is pointing to the need for the city to pass a resolution that it plans to manage the GOB funds and operate the museum. That agreement was proposed back in 2017 but never finalized, during Tomas Regalado’s administration. The resolution was to be signed by the mayor and commission as per the administrative guidelines of the $15.5 million GOB. The museum also has $5 million of Convention Development Tax bond funds earmarked.

Michael Spring, director, of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, in a September 2017 email, outlined the steps to accepting the bond funds to several city employees, including Forchion.

On Monday, he reiterated that the city did nothing after that email was sent.

“To date, the City has not provided us with any response indicating that they are willing to assume the operational responsibility and move forward with the project…,” the e-mail from Spring’s office said. “We have provided these facts to the City and the Virginia Key Beach Trust repeatedly over the years.”

On Tuesday, the city of Miami announced a meeting to discuss Ultra and “City Bond Issues” 2 p.m. May 21 in the staff room at city hall.


Francis Suarez said the city still plans to support the museum, which he said is a legacy project, especially for the Black community. It should have been done already, he said.

Calling it the single-most important arts project in the county that has not been funded, Xavier Suarez, whose District 7 includes the key, on Friday said Ultra Music Festival’s declining to bring back the electronic dance music concert to Virginia Key, should not hinder the building of the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Museum. He calls the proposed 15-year project a major priority.

“I have already allocated $125,000 in my current budget and will allocate another $125,000 in the 2019-20 budget for operations during construction,” Suarez said. “That is more than enough to operate during the construction phase.”

Construction costs are estimated at more than $22-million.

“I was ready to bring an operating budget to the county on Friday,” Francis Suarez said.

David Winker, an attorney who sued the city of Miami concerning the agreement with Ultra, said he learned a lot about Ultra after fighting with it – and what he found out wasn’t bad. He hopes Ultra will find a new home soon.

“… It is also a terrible result for the African American Museum at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, which should have been opened a long time ago and is in desperate need of the funding ULTRA was providing as part of its arrangement with the City,” he said in a statement.