Civil rights museum at Virginia Key

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez plans to meet with Miami-Dade County commissioners to talk about the plans for the civil rights museum at Virginia Key Beach Park.  

A museum that will document the Black history of early Miamians officially has the City of Miami's backing.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez signed a resolution on Monday that created the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Museum Fund, slated to cover the facility's operating budget for a minimum of 10 years.

Next step: Miami-Dade County's release of close to $20.5 million in general obligation bonds and tax funds for the construction of the museum.

After 15 years in limbo, the plans for the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Civil Rights Museum have picked up steam now that Miami has committed to fund the museum’s operating budget .

The city also is ready to accept the general obligation bond funds held by the county for the construction of the museum. The mayor’s resolution was unanimously approved by the City Commission at the end of June.

A lack of an identifiable source of operating budget has stalled the project since it was approved by the voters in 2004.

“It was a condition that the county placed on us, even though it was not a condition of the bond in 2004,” Mayor Suarez said.

The civil rights museum has always been a City of Miami project “to be designed, built and operated by the city on city property,” said Director of the county’s Department of Cultural Affairs Michael Spring in an email. “The county requires that municipalities that receive these grant funds first commit to the responsibility for the costs of managing the design and construction of the project and then, covering the operations of the completed museum. This commitment is the key to the project moving forward.”

The city will subsidize the operating fund for the museum and cover any operational shortfall that may occur, according to Suarez. “We are ready to accept it; we are ready to operate it; and we are ready to give it back to this deserving community,” he said.

Though it is unclear how much the city will pledge for the museum’s operating budget, funding is expected to come from the city’s general fund. “We have a moral responsibility to make sure we fund cultural assets such as this and that we take out of our general fund,” Suarez said. “This is not about money. This is about preserving our culture.”

Other city officials have echoed Suarez’s sentiments.

“If you never build a facility then you would never get a chance to operate it; people will never see the value,” said District 5 Commissioner Keon Hardemon last June when the mayor’s resolution was approved. “No one should fret about there being an opportunity to continue to fund the museum. We would do that,” he said.

The city expects the operating needs of the museum annually to cost $750,000 to $ 1 million.

Already the city has earmarked $1 million for the museum’s operating budget brought by Ultra Music Festival’s usage fee for hosting the festival at the park earlier this year.

At the county level, Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district encompasses Virginia Key Beach Park, has contributed $125,000 from his district discretionary funds for the operating budget of the museum. “I don’t have any project that I think is a higher priority for this county right now,” he said.

The county’s Department of Cultural Affairs will review the city’s recent action to commit to funding the museum’s operating budget, Spring said. “Our department will take the lead on working with city staff and administering the grant agreement to ensure the responsible use of the funds,” he said.

The museum will highlight the history of Virginia Key Beach, the only “colored beach” during segregation, as well as celebrate Miami’s Black and civil rights history and to pay homage to the environmental features of Virginia Key Beach.

“This will bring a strict emphasis to the African-American communities that recreated here and made it a very special place,” said Guy Forchion, executive director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, the managing entity of the park.

He noted Miami’s high Hispanic population and the museum’s place in keeping local Black history alive. “Here is a population that will have an opportunity to know part of the [Black] culture,” he said.

The trust will help curate the different exhibitions and installations featured in the museum. A permanent exhibit of civil rights activist and politician M. Athalie Range will be one of the major highlights of the museum, Forchion said. Range was founding member of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. “We want to tell her story; she was an incredible person in the [Black] history of South Florida,” he said.

Support at the city level is a good sign for the museum, Forchion said. “We have an incredible amount of momentum. I think we will be able to move rapidly,” he said.

Though there is no timeline for the project at the moment, Forchion said design and construction of the museum will take around two to three years.

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