When Thelma Gibson took to the microphone on Monday morning, she reminded those in attendance that she was born in a section of Coconut Grove once known as “Colored Town” during the Jim Crow era.
Gibson and other important figures in Coconut Grove met to inaugurate a new visitor center located at the entrance of KROMA Gallery, a Grand Avenue space for showcasing art that opened in 2014.
The gallery’s entrance features dozens of wishbones dangling from red strings that attach to a metallic mesh suspended from the ceiling. Across the street is Mr. Walt’s, a barber shop with an early 20th century wooden shoeshine stand on the sidewalk. The center is part of a larger initiative by local organizations, politicians, and community leaders to help revitalize the West Grove area.
“As always, I’ve got to talk about a little bit of history,” said Gibson, 88. Nowadays, when she’s not hobnobbing with local businessmen and politicians or involved in multimillion dollar development deals, she’s lobbying to change the city’s name to “Little Bahamas,” a reference to the West Grove’s significant Afro-Caribbean population.
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The center will offer visitors information pamphlets pertaining to local attractions and areas of interest, event calendars, and one executive indicated that the center might offer walking tours to tourists as a source of revenue that would help make the center self-sustainable.
GMCVB’s President and CEO, Willam D. Talbert, indicated that the campaign is part of a citywide effort to spread dollars from the tourism industry, which employs more residents than any other industry in Miami, to areas other than the usual “hotspots.”
“We don’t just want tourists to take their dollars into other parts of the community, we also want them to stay longer,” said Rolando Aedo, the convention bureau’s senior vice president for marketing and tourism. “If they stay in a hotel for one or two extra nights because they’re exploring the Grove or Little Havana, that a lot of money being invested in our community and more jobs that are being supported.”
The organization’s “It’s So Miami” campaign places emphasis on Miami’s multicultural communities, heritage, and history.
“Historically people’s perception of Miami has been about its wonderful beaches, nightlife, and restaurants, and that’s still a big part of what we do, but we feel that for tourism’s continued success moving forward, we also need to showcase all the other authentic, organic experiences that we have to offer.”
The ribbon cutting, coordinated by the convention bureau in partnership with KROMA and the Coconut Grove Collaborative, is GMCVB’s fourth such opening this year, including recent openings in Historic Overtown’s Lyric Theatre, Little Haiti’s Caribbean Marketplace, and Little Havana.
The convention bureau does not operate the visitor centers themselves, instead creating partnerships with local community development groups. The task of executing this vision will fall on the members of the Coconut Grove Collaborative Development Corporation.
“We’re doing this because we have a lot of opportunity here,” said J.S. Rashid, President and CEO of Coconut Grove Collaborative and KROMA Gallery. “This community, rich in culture, now has a bright, new future.”
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who represents the Coconut Grove area, was one of several county and city officials in attendance, including Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.
Suarez acknowledged that, though he considers revitalizing certain areas in South Miami “almost as important,” one of his primary focuses as commissioner has been cleaning up the dilapidated tenements, instability and heavy traffic that plague the area of the West Grove.
“We’ve allocated, of the monies we’ve had, about 80 percent to development of the West Grove,” Suarez said. “It’s a shot in the arm to a part of the body that’s flexing muscle right now, but it could always a little B-12.”