Downtown/Biscayne Corridor

Culture

The Cuban exile museum fighting for a home in downtown Miami

 

dhanks@MiamiHerald.com

Miami’s waterfront has a new art museum, with a science museum on the way. Does it have room for one dedicated to Cuban exiles, too?

Advocates of what would be Miami’s second museum devoted to Cuban immigrants are pushing county leaders to turn over county land behind the AmericanAirlines Arena to house the proposed 80-foot-tall complex, which would cost as much as $125 million to build.

The plan is facing push-back from the Miami Heat and some elected officials, who see disruptions from putting a large building on the waterfront spot’s compact footprint. But the group behind the museum sees the addition as a fittingly prominent platform for highlighting a central part of Miami’s history.

“We feel the site is the perfect place to preach not to the choir only, but to the public at large,” said William Muir, a Bay of Pigs veteran and a lead organizer of the proposed historical museum. “You have all of the tourists from the cruise ships there. And you have all of the Latin American tourists in downtown. What better place?”

A recent county report cataloging the challenges for the museum’s site plan has revved up focus on the matter, with various interests girding for a larger fight.

Audrey Edmonson, the county commissioner whose district includes the proposed site, known as Parcel B, said she’s planning a resolution that would bar construction on the land in favor of a park that nearby residents could use. Marc Sarnoff, the Miami city commissioner representing the area, said he’s opposed to putting a new museum on the waterfront, even on available land in the city’s existing Museum Park nearby.

“Give me a break,” Sarnoff said. “How about having some grass?”

The debate over the exile museum touches on enough hot topics to qualify for its own exhibit on contemporary Miami politics.

The three acres of county land sought by the Cuban Exile History Museum was promised as a park and soccer field when voters first approved construction of the tax-funded AmericanAirlines Arena in 1996, but it now serves as a truck and equipment depot when the arena hosts the circus and major concerts.

As the Heat gingerly pushes back on the idea of a museum rising next door, team executives are also pursuing a deal with Miami-Dade over extending their virtually rent-free lease on the arena and a yearly county subsidy of about $6.4 million in hotel taxes. Backers of the exile museum aren’t asking for public construction dollars, but also haven’t ruled out seeking government help if the private sector falls short.

“We are going to do everything possible to do this strictly without Miami-Dade County involved in the financing,” Muir said. “The first thing we need is a site. We can then start attracting the donations with the idea of doing this privately.”

Miami-Dade already subsidizes a different Cuban museum in Miami about three miles away. The Cuban Museum received $10 million in county construction dollars for its new Coral Way home, which is slated to open next spring.

Aside from questions over public resources, the exile museum debate is sure to touch on some of the diciest territory in local politics. The subject of Cuban-Americans’ central role in Miami can be a sensitive one for other ethnic groups.

In February, Javier Souto urged his fellow county commissioners to be especially deferential to Cuban-American concerns since “Latins here pay more taxes per capita than anybody else” and “out of the Latin people, the prevalent community is the Cuban community.” Commissioner Dennis Moss, the county’s senior African-American elected official, called Souto’s remarks “offensive” and stated: “Black folks built this community. To simply say that, well, Latins came to this town and all of a sudden, this town is what it is — I resent that.”

That moment also helps explain why Muir and others see an exile museum as so fitting for Miami, given the central role Cuban immigrants play in the local political leadership. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez was born in Cuba, as were Rebeca Sosa, the chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, and Tomás Regalado, the mayor of Miami.

Museum organizers say they plan to highlight the success stories of Cuban exiles, the umbrella term for immigrants who left Cuba after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. They also want the museum to attract tourists interested in the tumultuous events that helped spawn the exile community, including some that were milestones in U.S. history.

Among the exhibits cited as possibilities: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the 1980 Mariel boatlift, the Miami-based rafter-search operation Brothers to the Rescue, and the 2000 custody drama over young Elián Gonzalez. The museum also plans to study the impact of Cuban exiles in the United States, including a exhibit that Muir credits to Gimenez and describes as comparing Miami’s prosperity with Havana’s decay.

“You can’t really tell the Miami story without involving the contribution of the exile community,” said Cuban-American county Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, whose district includes Hialeah, and whose father is a Bay of Pigs veteran. “We won’t shy away from a healthy debate.”

Organizers of the exile museum initially proposed building a Bay of Pigs museum, with the focus solely on the failed U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961. The plan was to create a far larger version of the modest Bay of Pigs museum created out of a house in Little Havana. After their initial try to put the museum on Parcel B stalled in 2008, organizers broadened the concept.

By emphasizing history, the museum’s backers hope to distinguish their concept from the existing Cuban Museum, which focuses on the cultural contributions of the exile community. That museum, which currently operates out of donated office space in a bank, expects to move into a refurbished 15,000-square-foot building that once housed the Grand Opera’s Arturo di Filippi Center at 1200 Coral Way.

“We will have works of artists who were in the Mariel boat lift. We will do an exhibit on the Mariel reality,” said Ileana Fuentes, a consultant working on launching the upgraded Cuban Museum. “The approach here is art, culture and literature.”

The exile museum is pursuing a space nearly 10 times as large as the Coral Way museum, with about 110,000 square feet of exhibit and programming space in a five-story structure that would include a large ground-level parking complex. Robert Chisolm, the museum architect, said there would be space for almost 400 vehicles and ceilings high enough to accommodate the Heat’s special events — whether tractor trailers for a Shakira concert or giraffes for the circus. Plans also call for an open-air plaza, restaurant and visitor center at the ground level, Chisolm said.

“What we are providing is an open urban plaza free for the public,” he said.

An April 16 memo from Gimenez to commissioners said county planning staff concluded Parcel B could accommodate the museum’s footprint. While the memo described the Heat Group as expressing “overall support” for the exile museum, it also laid out a series of “concerns” from the team.

The Heat, according to the memo, said the option of temporarily renting Parcel B from the county during major events “is an essential component for their continued operational viability.” The team also noted the museum would block waterfront views of its Bongos restaurant.

The Heat declined to be interviewed for this story beyond a brief statement referring to “our response as reflected in the [Gimenez] report.”

Parcel B has been a flashpoint for more than a decade. Campaign materials for the 1996 referendum showed the area as a park with residents playing soccer, though the Heat’s development deal gave permission to build a retail complex there, too. The Heat at one point partnered with developer Armando Codina to build a high-rise apartment building there, but in 2003 the team gave up its right to the county land.

Backers of the exile museum have identified two downtown sites as possibilities. While Muir describes Parcel B as their top choice, they’ve also identified land owned by Miami a few blocks north in the area called Museum Park. Already home to the Perez Art Museum Miami and the under-construction Frost science museum, the area has land once designated for a restaurant and visitor center that could accommodate the exile museum, Chisolm said.

“Speaking as an architect,” Chisolm said, “either one would work just fine in my opinion.”

The site debate might come to a head soon, as Edmonson prepares to introduce a motion essentially forcing the museum to stay off Parcel B. The commissioner said she initially planned to recommend a traditional park there, but instead will request the land be designated as “open space” to allow nearby residents to convene planning sessions and formulate a proposed plan.

“They’re talking about doggie parks and tot lots,” she said. “This is the people’s land.”

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