Miami-Dade County

Vizcaya privatization plan draws foes, enters mayoral debate

A file photo of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, which is owned by Miami-Dade County.
A file photo of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, which is owned by Miami-Dade County.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s plan to privatize Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is drawing opposition from two rivals, announced challenger Raquel Regalado and potential candidate Xavier Suarez, the county commissioner whose district includes the historic site.

Gimenez’s administration recently proposed turning over control of the tourist attraction to a nonprofit board, rather than continuing to run it as an agency with county employees. The budding dispute involves the science museum on South Miami Avenue, across from the Vizcaya mansion, which sits on land that was part of the original estate.

The current plan is for Vizcaya to reclaim the plot once the science museum moves downtown next year, and recreate it with an eye toward the land’s historic role as farmland for the 1916 mansion across the street. There is also talk of putting a visitor center on the property, with restrooms and perhaps a place to eat.

Regalado and Suarez say Miami-Dade should consider other options. Both suggested turning the property over to the county parks department for recreation space.

“If we can’t afford it right now, fine. But let it be,” said Regalado, a two-term school board member. “Why do we need to give it away right now?”

Suarez, who planned to join Regalado for a television appearance Thursday to discuss Vizcaya, made a similar argument. “I am not in favor of this extreme urgency to act,” he said.

A top Gimenez aide called the criticism premature, since Vizcaya hasn’t had a chance to detail its plans for the science-museum area. Michael Spring, the mayor’s cultural chief, said that the farmland strategy should mesh with calls to keep the property undeveloped.

“It’s not an either-or proposition,” said Spring, whose portfolio includes Vizcaya. “It will act very much as a park, while supporting Vizcaya. … What people are advocating for to happen is in the direction where Vizcaya is taking it.”

A memo from the mayor’s office last week proposed making the switch to a private board by the fall.

The objection could complicate plans for one of Miami’s favorite tourist attractions, which industrialist James Deering built as a winter home. But it also reveals an intriguing political wrinkle, with implications for a pair of mayoral races.

Regalado is Gimenez’s only announced challenger for the 2016 county race. Suarez said he is considering a run, too, but will seek reelection as a commissioner if he sits out the race. His son, Francis Suarez, sits on the Miami City Commission and may run for mayor to succeed Regalado’s termed-out father, Tomás, as the city’s mayor in 2017.

Should Raquel Regalado lose the county mayor race, she’s seen as a potential successor to her father. So an alliance between her and Xavier Suarez could signal a broader agreement to give Francis a clear shot at City Hall.

On Thursday, Xavier Suarez said he still hadn’t decided whether to take on Regalado and Gimenez in the mayoral race.

The Vizcaya plan, unveiled last week, calls for turning management of the grounds over to a private board, while Miami-Dade would maintain ownership of the property and its collections. Spring said the agreement would also require county approval for any major alterations to the property, so elected leaders would maintain oversight for big projects. Miami-Dade provides a $2.5 million yearly subsidy for Vizcaya, and tax support would continue under the new management plan.

Spring’s hope is that a private board would boost fundraising from directors and others, and would let the institution pay for long-neglected capital needs for the property and fund the expansion.

Jeffrey Rynor, head of a volunteer board that supports Vizcaya, said the land across the street is central both to Vizcaya’s history and its future, with an opportunity to establish educational programs tied to agriculture.

“We have a national treasure in Vizcaya. The land across the street is a part of that history,” he said. “And it’s an important part of that history.”

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