Not one more penny of Miami-Dade County public funds for the Perez Art Museum Miami. That’s the solemn pledge the art museum’s leaders repeatedly made to this community in the early 2000s. A decade later, it seems their collective memory has turned mushy. I should know.
I helped broker the entire deal, both the public real estate and the public construction financing. I was the art museum’s unpaid, volunteer lobbyist and chief governmental strategist, beginning in October 2000 and for all four years during which both deals were struck.
This was the museum’s simple, three-part proposition:
▪ First, city of Miami, gift us free land in what then was called Bicentennial Park on the edge of Biscayne Bay. (In fairness, today the museum pays $2 a year rent.)
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▪ Second, Miami-Dade County, gift us $100 million of public money, no repayment necessary, to pay for most of our new art museum building.
▪ Third: We wealthy and sophisticated leaders of the art museum will raise all of the private dollars necessary to 1. complete the new-building construction and 2. create an endowment whose interest earnings will cover any operating cost deficits of the museum — forever and ever.
The city of Miami kept its part of the bargain, leasing the museum four acres of prime real estate and giving the museum $3.5 million in planning money. (A parcel of land on the Miami River recently sold for $100 million per acre, making the city’s contribution of “free” public parkland to the museum worth some $400 million today.)
I should know. I led the museum’s final negotiating session in then-City Commissioner Johnny Winton’s conference room at City Hall, where we haggled over how much park acreage the museum would control. The museum prevailed that day, and the City Commission unanimously approved a “Museum Park Miami” design concept in July 2002.
County taxpayers kept their part of the bargain, too. Voters agreed during the November 2004 Building Better Communities bond referendum to write a check for $100 million to the museum for construction of its new, waterfront facility.
I should know. The museum’s funding was tucked into the final ballot question: “To construct and improve libraries, cultural facilities, and Head Start learning centers for pre-school children to offer multicultural education opportunities and activities …” Vote for kids, and the museum will get its $100 million gift. That’s exactly what happened.
There’s no denying that cultural institutions in South Florida struggle to balance their budgets. But how’s the PAMM, back then known as the Miami Art Museum, doing financially today?
In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2012, the latest year for which records are publicly available, the art museum reported total revenues of $55 million — a 75 percent increase from its prior fiscal year, though some of that income was early, public construction money that had not yet been spent on the new building. That financial snapshot also showed that the museum had net assets of almost $106 million.
However, PAMM leaders — essentially the same Miami Art Museum heavyweights from a decade ago — are rattling a tin cup and trying to renege on their promises to our community.
They not only want the county to continue its historic $2.5-million annual subsidy of public money, which they once promised would end when the newly constructed museum opened its doors, they also want to bump up the public subsidy by $1.5 million, to a cool $4 million a year.
That is outrageous. PAMM has all the money it needs at its fingertips. Virtually every other building ever constructed on public property in this county by a private corporation such as PAMM belongs to the taxpayers who own the property on which the physical improvement sits. Not so with PAMM: Written into its 99-year city lease, the Miami Art Museum of Dade County Association Inc. — the PAMM corporation — maneuvered to actually own its gleaming new building. If PAMM is short of cash, it should get a mortgage loan just like struggling taxpayers.
I was an enthusiastic and proud advocate between 2000 and 2004 for the art museum. PAMM got everything it asked for from the public. Today, it’s time to stop asking. That was the promise.
Eston “Dusty” Melton, a former political reporter for the Miami Herald, is chairman of Global Projects Inc., a Miami-based political consulting and lobbying firm.