Miami-Dade County

City resolution unlocks funds for Historic Virginia Key Beach Park museum

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

After years of standstill, Virginia Key Beach Park took a step toward constructing its proposed civil rights museum.

Miami leaders unanimously passed a resolution Thursday, committing to help the park with the museum’s operational costs post-construction. The resolution prompts the release of funds allotted over 10 years ago from Miami-Dade County totaling about $20.5 million for construction of the museum.

The museum is planned to commemorate the park’s civil rights and environmental history. Opened in 1945 as a “colored only” beach, Virginia Key Beach Park was the only Miami beach, at the time, that permitted people of color.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez sponsored the legislation.

“What we’re doing is we’re accepting the funds from the county,” Suarez said. “We have done everything that the county has asked. We provided them with the operational funding, we’ve provided them with the land, and the voters have provided them with the money. So, there’s no more excuses.”

In 2001, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners approved allocation from County Convention Development Tax funds for park improvements and construction of a museum for up to $5 million. Through the county’s Building Better Communities General Obligation Bond, which county voters approved in 2004, the city was awarded a reimbursement grant totaling $15.5 million for the museum.

“We can’t just let this money sit there for decades,” said Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez. “This is an untapped jewel.”

Advocates for the museum were present at Thursday’s meeting, donning bright neon shirts reading, “Support the civil rights museum at Virginia Key Beach Park.” During public comment, supporters encouraged commissioners to not further delay construction on a museum many have pushed for years to come to fruition.

“Virginia Key Beach has been the place to welcome people who were not welcomed elsewhere,” said Wallis Tinnie, a Miami resident of over 50 years, to commissioners. “I think the idea of having a museum to document the wonderful history of civil rights in this community is a legacy I think you would be proud that you were a part of.”

The tentative location for the museum is the 82-acre park’s front lawn, said Guy Forchion, executive director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

The release of county funds was contingent upon legislation from the city due to Virginia Key Beach Park’s being municipal-owned property and funds going directly to the city for construction. The city had to make a formal commitment in the form of a resolution or “other legally required documentation,” saying it had the operational costs to sustain the museum.

Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents the district where the park resides, said the wait for the release of construction funds “only echoes the neglect of the past.”

Trustee members and park staff met with city leaders on multiple occasions to discuss the resolution item ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

Under the resolution, the city will enter into an interlocal agreement with the county and address “any museum operational shortfall within the first 10 years of operation.” In December 2016, consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources released a business plan and projections update for the museum. The update detailed the museum will likely require operating support from both government and private sources.

The city’s resolution comes after the Ultra Music Festival’s decision to leave the city of Miami left the park without a continuous stream of $1 million a year. The city decided to split the $2 million fee it charged Ultra to host on Virginia Key with the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, which oversees park operations. It was reported by The Miami Times that the $1 million has already been delivered to the park’s trust. Forchion said some of it has already been set aside for museum operations.

Although the resolution passed unanimously, Commissioners Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes voiced concerns about the funding streams for future operational revenues ahead of the motion.

“We have to identify quickly where that money is going to come from,” Carollo said.

In the first three years the museum’s projected operational costs would be $700,000-$1 million a year, said Miami Budget Director Chris Rose. There were discussions of setting a yearly cap in funding for the museum.

Prior to Thursday’s meeting, Russell said one option for the city is to look into the revenue the Virginia Key island generates and see what can be set aside for the park’s operational cost.

Earlier in the commission meeting, commissioner Keon Hardemon assuaged concern of the city’s being able to find operational funds.

“No one should fret about there being an opportunity to fund this museum,” Hardemon said. “We fund organizations on that key already, and so we have no problem helping to provide additional funding.”

There’s still more work to be done, but a significant hurdle has been overcome in terms of building the park’s museum, Forchion said. New plans for the museum will need to be in development, he said, particularly focused on revenue generation.

“I think what’s unique, is that we can now build for the revenue need,” Forchion said. “It’s not just building blind. I’m delighted to see a unanimous backing. We’re looking at the mayor and five commissioners behind it. I know we can make this work.”

The tentative start for construction on the museum is 2021.