Miami-Dade County

Historic Virginia Key Beach Park looks to city to OK funds for museum

Depiction of the proposed Virginia Key Beach Park museum. Miami commissioners will vote on June 13 over a resolution to release about $20.5 million to start construction on the museum.
Depiction of the proposed Virginia Key Beach Park museum. Miami commissioners will vote on June 13 over a resolution to release about $20.5 million to start construction on the museum. Virginia Key Beach Park

In 2001, Miami-Dade’s Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution that allocated up to $5 million from the County Convention Development Tax to fund improvements for Virginia Key Beach Park and the building of a museum. The museum would detail the history behind Virginia Key Beach Park, once one of the only beaches in Miami that would permit people of color.

In 2004, when residents of Miami-Dade County voted to approve the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities Bond Program, it was another major win for Virginia Key Beach Park. Through the bond — which was created to fund over 300 community projects — $15.5 million was approved for the building of a museum.

However, despite the bond approval and county resolution being over a decade ago, Virginia Key Beach Park has yet to see any of these funds or start construction on a museum — but an upcoming vote from the city of Miami could finally change that.

The 82-acre Virginia Key Beach Park was established in the aftermath of a May 1945 “wade-in” at Haulover Beach, where black men and women made a statement by entering waters that were at the time reserved for whites only. The park opened in August 1945 as a “colored only” beach and was only accessible by boat or ferry until the building of the Rickenbacker Causeway in 1947.

Virginia Key Beach Park holds an immense history for black Miamians who saw the park — and continue to see it today — as a source of fun and refuge.

virginia beach
Crandon Park was for whites only. In the mid-1940s, a “colored-only” beach was established on Virginia Key. Arcadia Publishing

“That was the only recreation we had outside of playing at your house or church,” said Maud Newbold, a native Miamian and board member of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. Newbold said she remembers going to the beach for her school’s senior outing when she was a student at Booker T. Washington High School in the late 1950s.

Enid Pinkney, a founding board member of the park’s trust, said a museum would inform those who know little local civil rights history.

“There’s a big void in the community about local history,” Pinkney said. “I think it would help to educate the community about what took place here and the struggle that we had. It’s like the struggle continues because the money that was allocated for the museum was allocated a long time ago and nothing happened.”

In 1982, the city of Miami closed the park due to high maintenance cost. During its closure the city established the Virginia Key Park Civil Rights Task Force and later the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, the present board that oversees park operations. In 2002, the park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and after years of restoration reopened in 2008.

It’s become a renewed staple for residents, visitors, camps and major events, due to its recreational facilities, sprawling fields and tranquil blue water and white sand. But even after the park’s resurgence, the promise of a museum has yet to be fulfilled.

After the county’s official kick-off for the Building Better Community Bond Program in June 2005 — with the kick-off event being hosted at Virginia Key Beach Park — everything seemed to fall into place when it came to planning the park’s museum, said Guy Forchion, executive director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

“This project was seen as one that was closest to shovel-ready at that time,” Forchion said. “We moved right along just fine. We had our distribution dates laid out, hired a museum designer, and as we went through that process the economy blew up.”

In the midst of getting things in place to start the construction of the museum, the Great Recession hit. Forchion said the city’s contribution to Virginia Key Beach Park gradually stopped, pushing the trust to find new revenue streams, and halting the momentum on the park’s museum.

City and county officials have credited the lack of operational funds once the museum is built as the reason for the halt on releasing funds for the museum.

In order to obtain county funds for designated projects, municipalities have to prove to the county they have the funds to sustain approved projects upon completion, said Michael Spring, the director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs who led the charge to pass the referendum for the Building Better Communities Bond Program.

“Our rules that were adopted for the program said that in order for cities to undertake these projects, we had to have an assurance from the city that they would have a plan in place to address the operational needs of the resulting project,” Spring said.

Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes Virginia Key Beach Park, said although there were funds to construct a museum, the city was cautious to move until there was enough money to maintain the museum once it was built.

“There was an opportunity to create the museum, but there wasn’t a financing structure once it was built,” Russell said. “Too many times we build large institutions, and we haven’t figured out a financial plan down the road. Finding that funding mechanism has been the puzzle.”

When the Ultra Music Festival decided to make its move to Virginia Key, the deal with the city of Miami included the trust’s receiving $1 million of the $2 million a year Ultra was required to pay to the city to host the festival. It seemed the park’s operating budget was all but solidified for years to come, however, that changed when Ultra decided to take the party elsewhere and ended its deal with the city. The park still received $1 million after Ultra’s departure, with some of the funds being used now for park operations, and part of it being set aside for operation of the museum.

Russell said he hopes the city will look into the millions of dollars Virginia Key island generates and take a percentage of that to set aside for the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust and abate the issue of searching for operational funds for the museum.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who represents District 7 where the park resides, said building of the museum has been a longtime coming.

“The idea that we have a historic facility and $20.5 million dollars for a museum to commemorate and remind our kids that things have improved is something that should have been done a long time ago,” Suarez said.

Suarez gave $125,000 of his Community-Based Organizations discretionary funds to the park for its train restoration project, and in a letter to the editor of The Miami Times, Suarez wrote he “will do so again next fiscal year if the county bucks its head to allocate funds.” In an email, Suarez’s chief of staff, Melissa Dynan, said next fiscal year’s contribution could be for “the train, museum, whatever the need is.”

Staff of the Virginia Key Beach Park and trust board members have been in overdrive, working to get the word out about the item, printing notices on everything from fliers, t-shirts and even paper fans. Well-known local figures such as rapper Luke “Uncle Luke” Campbell and other city officials such as Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez can be seen on the park’s social media openly advocating for the resolution item. The item will be voted on Thursday, June 13, at the Miami Commission meeting.

As the days wind down to the city’s making a decision to show its commitment to support the museum’s operating expenses for 10 years, Forchion said he’s optimistic the commission will see now is the time to give local residents the museum they’ve been hoping for.

“As difficult as getting consensus from the city of Miami can be at times, I’m imagining that we would have a unanimous vote on this,” Forchion said.

This story was updated after it was published to clarify that Miami-Dade County has the funding for the museum, but the city of Miami has to first commit to supporting the museum’s operating funds for 10 years.