Five years ago, with millions in public funds at their disposal, the leaders of the Miami Woman’s Club planted shiny new shovels into a mound of symbolic sand and launched a campaign to restore their historic headquarters on the bay.
Bolstered by nearly $4million from a city redevelopment agency and with a prominent architect at their side, the nonprofit — an organization whose history is interwoven with Miami’s — made bold predictions of revitalizing both the club and its treasured jewel.
But today, that mission remains unfulfilled. And even as the club prepares to meet with potential partners for what might be substantive deals to breathe life back into the site and the 114-year-old organization, there are serious questions about the future and finances of the Woman’s Club.
Earlier this year, the club was slapped with a $650,000 judgment owed Beauchamp Construction, the contractor hired to conduct the restoration of the U-shaped, Mediterranean Revival-style building at 1737 N. Bayshore Dr. Three months later, the club says it learned the Internal Revenue Service had revoked its non-profit status back in September of 2012, raising the specter of owing years of back-taxes.
Meanwhile, despite having spent millions to shore up the structure of the building, the club and architect Richard Heisenbottle say an art university that leased the building for more than 30 years left the interior so wrecked in the mid-2000s that the inside had to be dismantled. Millions more in work must be done in order to even house tenants, leaving the club with a less-than-solid income stream and some prominent critics.
“They can’t seem to manage,” said member Kathryn Kassner. “They simply lack the ability to perform the tasks necessary. They don’t have the skill set to manage the investments they have.”
Club President Noreen Timoney acknowledges that the challenges have been substantial. But she says predictions of the club’s demise are shortsighted. This coming week, the club is meeting with potential partners and investors, she said.
“The bottom line here is there’s a very positive outlook. Not only are these presentations something that could restore that building to its grandeur but also have our organizations come together to make a huge impact in our community,” said Timoney, the wife of former Miami Police Chief John Timoney
Timoney declined to discuss the investors and their plans, although one is apparently the private Cushman School, which according to Kassner has offered to invest $5 million in the facility and set aside woman’s club space as part of a new downtown campus, based on what members were told.
Other money-generating possibilities include leveraging special development rights afforded to historic properties and coming to a deal with a builder, though she said there would be no commercial development. The club also recently secured a $500,000 grant from the state of Florida, and according to its president has found creative ways to raise funds and stay active in the community through partnerships with other non-profits.
“Recognizing that we were strapped and still having to do repairs that were not covered by that [city] grant and our recertification, we’ve kept that building solid, kept up operations, kept up partnerships and we’ve kept up programs that benefit our community,” Timoney said.
A century ago, back when the woman’s club first started, members hosted important events and the group grew so large it attracted the attention of Henry Flagler, who donated land downtown and helped the organization create a public library. With his permission, they sold the land and purchased a two-acre site on the bay and, in 1926, its clubhouse was dedicated.
The building, which would land on the National Register of Historic Places, became an important gathering spot in the community until it was leased to an art school in the 1970s and then nearly sold in the 2000s. The woman’s club, however, changed its mind after a bitter internal fight and committed to reinvigorating both its mission and its headquarters.
“Now we’re coming full circle,” Timoney said.
Looming over that rosy future, however, is the recent judgment owed Beauchamp and the revocation of the club’s non-profit status. Timoney said the club came to a $350,000 settlement with the contractor, which she blamed on change orders that weren’t presented to the club.
She said the IRS issue appears to have either been an agency oversight or a clerical error, and now the club has also sought to be reinstated as a nonprofit.
Tax experts say that likely won’t be a problem, with the issue resulting over the club’s apparent failure to file the required tax forms showing how it makes and spends its money. But if the club isn’t successful, it will be on the hook for three years of back taxes plus penalties for a site with an assessed valued of $12.5 million.
Those are serious concerns, said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the club’s headquarters and who sits as chair of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, which contributed $3.7 million to the clubhouse restoration and is a lienholder on the property. Sarnoff said a revitalized Woman’s Club would be a boon to Miami, but that under Timoney the organization has floundered and placed its historic asset in a precarious position.
“They need to get their financial house in order,” said Sarnoff, who voted against giving them the money years ago. “I knew they were a mess. I didn’t know they were as big a mess as they really are, but I didn’t think they’d handle the money well.”
Timoney doesn’t deny that the club has had its problems. But she says it is heading in the right direction. Come next week, she said, its future will be much clearer.
“I think you will be wowed,” she said.