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Published Feb. 11, 2008

There is good news and bad news about the effort to build a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Largo Central Park.

The good news is that a nationally recognized sculptor, Ed Dwight of Denver, has offered to create a bronze relief of King for a small memorial plaza planned in the park. The offer creates a fine opportunity for the city to acquire a piece of public art by a well-known American artist.

The bad news is that the fundraising for the project is being fumbled badly. The city ultimately is to blame.

In 2003, the city appointed a citizen committee to decide a way to honor King after several racially tinged incidents had occurred in the city. The group proposed a memorial plaza. Various designs were considered in subsequent years, until one plan for a small paved plaza in Largo Central Park finally gained favor in 2007 and the city budgeted $60,000 for it.

But the idea stirred controversy. Some residents said an MLK memorial didn't belong in Largo. Others didn't want tax dollars used for it. Some city commissioners began to get uncomfortable. Last September, they cut the $60,000 out of the city budget.

After hearing pleas from City Commissioner Rodney Woods, a member of the original committee and the only commissioner who speaks passionately for the project, the commission agreed the city could provide $15,000 in seed money if someone could raise $45,000 in private donations.

Woods agreed to try, and when he asked for help from the commission in organizing the fundraising effort, Commissioner Andy Guyette said he would be "proud" to help.

Woods' heart is in the right place, but he lacks experience at fundraising, and as a first-term commissioner he knows little about how such things should be handled. His efforts have brought in a few hundred dollars but have created some embarrassment for the city. And shamefully, his fellow commissioners, including Guyette, seem to have abandoned him and left him flailing.

Are they heedless of the message their disregard sends?

Woods must accept that while he has the passion this project needs, he doesn't have the skills. He should seek out those who do before proceeding. Largo has some experienced fundraisers who proved their mettle in public campaigns years ago for Largo Central Park, and more recently, for the new library. They should step forward and offer their help.

As for the city's role in all this, it is time for Largo officials to admit that the MLK memorial is a public-private venture, and their efforts to keep hands off are only causing harm to the city's image and reputation.

The city approved the project. The city has $15,000 of seed money in the pot. The memorial will be located in a city park, on city land. The city will be the entity approving the design and builder. The city is holding the donated money in a special fund. And the city will own the memorial when it is done.

This is a public-private project - and there is nothing wrong with that. Many great public projects, from performing arts halls to parks to art museums, have been built through the joint funding and organizational efforts of governments and private individuals, and when they are completed, the community feels the pride of ownership. The Military Court of Honor in Largo Central Park is a local example of a public-private partnership in which the city happily participated.

Largo officials need to stop running from the idea of a small MLK memorial in their park, and take responsibility for insuring that the project is done well, from beginning to end. They should begin by naming a fundraising committee that will include Woods, city staffers, residents and an individual or individuals with experience in conducting public fundraising campaigns. Then they should pledge their support in getting a properly organized fundraising campaign under way.