ST. PETERSBURG — The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum is getting a new lease on life.
Mayor Rick Kriseman announced Tues., March 10 the city’s effort to preserve the Midtown landmark by purchasing the museum’s property from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority (SPHA), which can no longer afford to keep it. Officials of the housing authority voted in January to put the building on the market, placing the museum’s future in jeopardy.
This announcement came as a relief to many who view the museum, located at 2240 Ninth Ave. S., as an integral part of not only the neighborhood’s but of the city’s cultural landscape.
The intense standoff between the museum’s board and the SPHA started around 10 months ago when Terri Lipsey-Scott, chair of the museum said they were blindsided by St. Petersburg College’s (SPC) proposal to take over the museum at a SPHA monthly meeting.
SPC said they were approached by the housing authority to take over the museum and backed down once the controversy ensued.
Since then the embattled board has thwarted ever effort thrown at them to discredit the museum. When Darrell Irions, St. Petersburg Housing Authority’s chief executive officer, said the current museum administration has never met the museum’s original objective of being a fully functional African-American museum, and that it’s no more than a social club, the board countered with a list of events including exhibits, lectures and book signings.
When the board was accused of having irregularities in their finances, they disproved the accusation by showing a letter from their CPA explaining that they have sound financial practices.
When the SPHA voted to sell the building in January, the museum was given six months to vacate the property. Since then the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told the SPHA and city officials that the property must remain a museum no matter who owns it.
“The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum is not only an important cultural asset in this city,” said Kriseman, addressing the crowd of council members, community leaders and residents, “but is also an important historical asset to this community. And as such, this city has a keen interest on making sure that it not only survives, but thrives.”
When the mayor announced that the city would take the necessary steps to begin purchasing the building, shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Thank you!” erupted from the crowd, amidst spirited applause.
Kriseman explained that the city owning a building that house a cultural asset is not unfamiliar territory, as it owns the buildings that house the St. Petersburg Museum of History, the Great Explorations Museum and the Mahaffey Theater. And like all of those, Kriseman said, the Woodson is vitally important to our culture and our quality of life.
It’s important to note that this announcement represents only the first step, the mayor cautioned, explaining that the city will need to conduct an appraisal of the building, identify and finalize the funding source and discuss a lease agreement with the museum board.
Lipsey-Scott expressed some concern about the looming vacate date.
“We’re hopeful that the St. Petersburg Housing Authority will revisit that vote or at least bring it back to the table to consider extending our lease date. We’re still faced with a July 15 vacate date. That hasn’t changed,” Scott said, adding that this impairs the museum board considerably since it is trying to focus on programming.
Referring to the housing authority’s controversial vote to terminate the lease, Irions explained that the SPHA never aimed to shut down the Woodson, adding that the museum itself can operate out of any building. He expressed enthusiasm now that the city will make plans to purchase the property, though there is no timetable yet.
“I am actually very thrilled!” Irions said. “You know, we don’t have the money to continue to support the maintenance because our monies keep getting cut, every dollar counts. I’m just happy. This came faster than I thought.”
He explained that a big reason the SPHA voted to sell the building was because it needed the money from the proceeds to build Wounded Warrior housing.
“We’ve got to get that done,” he said. “Our veterans, they need it. And there’s a lot of veterans that come back, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the ability to afford regular housing.”
Kriseman warned that there is a lot of work to do and it will not happen overnight.
“This process remains true to our vision,” the mayor said. “The strategy for success in our urban areas is not about closing doors, it’s about keeping them open.”
Since the Board of Commissioners set the July 15 vacate date for the museum, they will have to decide whether to push it back or not.
“From my perceptive,” said Irions, “I want to see where these negotiations go with the city. How serious are they, how committed are they to making this happen. And if they are, then I think that as the CEO I can make a request of the board. As of today they have not authorized me to extend anything. The July 15 date is still in place.”
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