TAMPA — To put the historic social club on better financial footing, president Sharon Gomez said earlier this month that she was seeking to rent out the Sociedad La Union Martí-Maceo in Ybor City as an event space.
As it turns out, Gomez had already secured a 13-5 vote of the Afro-Cuban club’s members to sell the headquarters at 1226 E. Seventh Ave. — and scheduled a second vote naming her cousin and club member Jesus Puerto as the buyer. That proposal would pass, too, but on a closer, 7-6 vote.
Some club members objected and had an attorney send a letter pointing out how the move might run afoul of the law. Among them: The Internal Revenue Service forbids non-profit organizations from making decisions that financially benefit members or relatives.
The dissenters further complained votes were not properly announced, no proof of debt was shown, the decision was rushed and other financial options were not explored.
Now, the club has decided to give up on the sale, agreeing to seek other ways of reducing its debt, said Shobha Lizaso, attorney for the dissenters.
The move saves the building, they say, as well as the very existence of the 118-year-old organization.
"It is not going to survive without a clubhouse," member Kirk Cox said.
Gomez had told the Tampa Bay Times during an Oct. 9 event at the Martí-Maceo club that the nonprofit would "maintain as we always have."
The event was held to honor the history of an organization that, like all Ybor’s historic social clubs, provided social services to the Latin district’s immigrant families.
They now serve to preserve the unique multicultural roots of a community that once was the cigar-making capital of the world.
After learning the club had voted to sell the building, the Times reached out again to Gomez, her cousin Puerto and other board members. They did not return phone calls.
Cox said more of Martí-Maceo’s nearly 50 members would have attended the initial vote Sept. 23 had it been better advertised.
"They didn’t tell me until the night before about the meeting and didn’t tell me until I got there me there would be a vote to sell," Cox said.
Member Pedro Bullaudy said he was told of the meeting a week in advance but only learned the reason for it the night before.
The vote to sell came after Gomez reported that debts of $30,000 were too high to overcome, members said.
Bullaudy said the club is indeed in financial trouble but he voted no on the sale because no proof of debt was presented.
"This was such a big decision and we didn’t have a lot of facts to go on," he said. He wants to see treasurer reports and bank records.
The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website shows the clubhouse mortgage is paid off. As a nonprofit, it is exempt from property tax.
"We were told we are forced to sell because all avenues have been exhausted," said Melissa Braswell, who under club bylaws could not vote because she joined less than six months ago.
At the September meeting, members were told that the club owed money for pest control, water bills and a cleaning service, and for work done by a contractor, Braswell said.
She said she’s not convinced the club has done all it can, like seeking donations from the public.
When member Ray Alba showed up to an Oct. 14 meeting, he was shocked to learn the club had agreed to sell the building.
"It was out of the blue," Alba said.
Told he would be voting on a sale to Puerto, he cast a ballot against the proposal.
Had the sale gone through, it would mark the second time Martí-Maceo lost a clubhouse.
Like its counterparts the Cuban Club, Centro Espanol, Centro Asturiano and the Italian Club, the Martí-Maceo once boasted an ornate clubhouse. But it was demolished during the urban renewal campaign of the 1960s.
Members moved into the current building.
Puerto had planned to open an Afro-Cuban-themed restaurant there. Bullaudy said he liked the concept and designs he saw, which honored Afro-Cubans, and the plans to continue using it for club meetings.
Still, he said, it would not be the same.
"The price the club would pay is giving up its building," he said. "I don’t support that."
Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.