TAMPA — The city of Tampa had a plan for taking ownership of the abandoned Memorial Park Cemetery, which they had been maintaining since the owner died in 2019.
They placed a lien on the 104-year-old Black cemetery for what they were owed for maintenance, knowing it would be foreclosed upon and then available for them to purchase at a public auction conducted by the Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts.
It did not go as planned.
The city attorney’s office placed their initial bid but did not counterbid or monitor the online auction. Instead, two property flippers dueled during a nearly 10-minute auction, according to public records provided by the Clerk of the Courts.
Alex Arteaga won with an $18,000 bid but now admits he does not want to handle the long-term upkeep. He said he was unaware that all 20 acres were cemetery land.
Now, some with loved ones buried in Memorial Park want the city to atone for setting in motion the process that put the property up for auction.
“I am so frustrated and angry that the city did not take this serious,” said Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis, who has three family members buried there. “The city needs to take full responsibility and make this right. Buy the cemetery. That cemetery is part of our history.”
Valerie Reed, who has 20 relatives buried there, said the situation could have been avoided if the city had contacted people with relatives buried at the cemetery. She believes the community would have told the city to not risk foreclosing on a cemetery with veteran graves dating to World War I.
“Most of the ancestral generations buried there were significant to the establishment of Black Tampa history, let alone Tampa’s overall history,” Reed said. She, too, wants the city to purchase Memorial Park. She then wants it designated as a local historic landmark, which she said would properly honor its importance.
Caridad Arenas, who has 14 family members buried in Memorial Park, agreed with that course of action.
“I am so upset,” she said. “I visit the cemetery for holidays and birthdays. I cannot believe this happened. The city needs to do what is right by the community. If they need help, let us know. I believe people would come by to clean it.”
The cemetery is on the market, though not officially listed anywhere yet.
Arteaga wouldn’t disclose what he wants for the East Tampa property at 2425 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., but he said he has spent $30,000 on it so far. That includes paying the city the $9,862 they were owed for the lien.
“I am doing the best that I can to take care of it,” Arteaga said. “The longer I keep it, the more money I spend, and the more it will cost to buy.”
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How it happened
According to public documents provided by the city and the Clerk of Court, prior to the auction, the city placed a $9,862 “plaintiff max bid” on the property. The city was the plaintiff in the lien case that led to the foreclosure.
That type of bid is the minimum that a plaintiff will accept it be auctioned for, said Michael Singer, a Lieser Skaff Alexander real estate attorney who is not affiliated with this case. If no one bids more than that, the plaintiff can take the property instead of the lien amount.
The city chose to conceal their bid amount and identity. But the auction listed that there was a judgement for $9,862 on the property and that an undisclosed plaintiff max bid had been made.
Omdutt Acharya started the auction with a $9,900 bid, according to public records. He then offered $12,900, $15,900 and $17,900 as Arteaga raised his bids and eventually won. Acharya said he didn’t know that he was bidding on a cemetery until last week when the Times told him.
A plaintiff can counterbid, Singer said.
But, the city attorney’s office was not watching the auction because they did not think that anyone would buy a cemetery, city spokesperson Adam Smith said.
In late January, Arteaga said that he was aware it was a cemetery. Last week, Arteaga said that he thought part of the acreage was a cemetery and part was vacant land. He recently told WTSP that he didn’t know it was a cemetery at all.
“I saw the property was for auction 10 minutes before it started,” Arteaga said. “I just looked at the acres.”
Arteaga said he was so sure the property included vacant land that he was prepared to bid up to $290,000.
County auctions always list the address but do not say what is on the property. Each property has a link to its page on the Hillsborough County property appraiser’s website. Memorial Park’s shows an aerial photograph of headstones and states the land use designation as “cemetery.”
Arteaga is taking care of Memorial Park for now. The trash cans are emptied once a week and litter is collected.
“I want to sell it to someone who can maintain it forever,” he said. “I want to sell it to either the city or a nonprofit.”
Until that happens, Memorial Park is safe. Under state law, a cemetery cannot be developed.
Aileen Henderson heads The Cemetery Society not-for-profit group that has been helping to clean Memorial Park in recent years. She said the city must step up.
“I am disgusted by their reckless act that allowed Memorial Park Cemetery to be auctioned and I am disgusted that they didn’t try to buy it,” she said. “For the past few years, the city has been saying the right thing, saying they wanted to protect the cemetery. When it came time to do the right thing, they did nothing.”