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Where does St. Pete’s Carter G. Woodson Museum belong? It’s up for debate.

As the city’s African-American museum plans for expansion, fissures grow over where it should go and who should pay for it.
The Woodson flag flew over St. Petersburg City Hall for the entire month of February in celebration of Black History Month and in honor of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, also known as the Father of Black History. The city's Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum is named in his honor.
The Woodson flag flew over St. Petersburg City Hall for the entire month of February in celebration of Black History Month and in honor of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, also known as the Father of Black History. The city's Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum is named in his honor. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 23, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — As soon as the architects were done with last month’s presentation on the future of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, the games began.

First, there was the tug-of-war between City Council members and the mayor’s administration. Some council members want to see the museum rebuilt along the black community’s historic main street and business district, 22nd Street S, also known as the Deuces. But Mayor Rick Kriseman’s staff had the architects envision a new facility built atop the museum’s current location just west of 22nd Street S along Ninth Avenue S and directly south of Interstate 275.

“Twenty-second Street is the heart of the south side, of Midtown," council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, whose district includes the museum, said at the Oct. 10 meeting of the council’s public service and infrastructure committee. "This belongs somewhere on 22nd street.”

Then came the game of hot potato between Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and museum Executive Director Terri Lipsey Scott. Tomalin said it would be the museum’s responsibility to guide the vision from renderings to reality. But Scott begged the city not to hand the project over to the museum.

“We don’t have the capacity to do what’s needed,” Scott said at the meeting. “But the city does.”

Caught in the middle is the future of a St. Petersburg institution dedicated to African-American art and culture, currently stuck in a building that everyone agrees is woefully inadequate.

The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in its current home at 2240 Ninth Ave. S in St. Petersburg.
The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in its current home at 2240 Ninth Ave. S in St. Petersburg. [ WAVENEY ANN MOORE | Times ]

• • •

The city bought the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum building in 2015 for $680,000 from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. The roughly 4,000 square-foot building was once the community center for Jordan Park, a historic African-American community near 22nd Street S and Ninth Avenue S.

The museum’s namesake, the son of former slaves, was the second African-American to earn a PhD at Harvard and is regarded as the father of black history.

The museum was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Florida Legislature in 2018 to renovate the building. The plan was to spend that on new bathrooms and more storage space.

Then museum and city leaders decided to think bigger, choosing to invest the money in the institution’s future rather than make minor renovations. They hired architects to envision what a new museum might look like.

RELATED: Despite DeSantis veto in 2019, St. Pete’s Woodson African American Museum pushes to expand

Some of those ideas: A 15,000 square-foot, two-story facility that takes full advantage of the site’s tree canopy with outdoor event spaces. A climate-controlled art gallery and storage space, which would allow it to host traveling exhibits from museums like the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.. A rooftop sculpture terrace and space for classrooms and a symposium.

Council members found all those concepts striking ― but so was the price tag of about $15 million.

Still, they fawned over the design.

“I’m overwhelmed really,” said council chair Charlie Gerdes, whose only lament was that the vision wasn’t even bolder. “I like where the dream’s headed.”

“I love this,” Wheeler-Bowman said.

But she, too, wished for a grander design. And she knows where she’d put it.

• • •

Commerce Park is the long-stagnant 13-acre development project on the west side of 22nd Street S between Sixth and Eighth Avenues S.

The city assembled the parcel in 2007. The federal government gave St. Petersburg the funds to start buying up land to reduce blight. The caveat was the city had to use the land to create jobs. But permanent jobs never arrived, and the city recently had to pay the $2.2 million back after federal officials grew impatient.

RELATED: Feds to St. Petersburg: Give back our $2.2 million

A plan to open a motorcycle dealer on about three acres of the 22nd Street S parcel straddling Fairfield Avenue S across from the Historic Manhattan Casino fell apart.

Wheeler-Bowman wants the museum there. The three acres is bigger than the museum’s current 2-acre site, and could likely offer more parking.

Louis Armstrong appeared at the Manhattan Casino in March 1957.
Louis Armstrong appeared at the Manhattan Casino in March 1957.

“It would be beautiful to have that museum on 22nd Street, right across from the Manhattan Casino," Wheeler-Bowman said.

Scott also supports the Commerce Park site. She said the museum could act as a “buffer to what folks are considering gentrification," or what some in the community see as the Warehouse Arts District encroaching on the historically black community.

“If we find ourselves in the middle of the arts district,” Scott said, "how appropriate would that be?”

Council member Amy Foster said she would also like to see a new museum on 22nd Street S.

But the Kriseman administration opposes putting it there.

One complication is that whether the Woodson museum stays or goes, its current building must remain a community cultural center per an agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Tomalin said at a Nov. 7 council committee meeting that the city is reluctant to commit to the Commerce Park site because it would lock up the parcel for years while the museum raises money and finalizes plans. The administration would rather see the site used to generate new jobs sooner.

But Thursday she told the Tampa Bay Times that in terms of the museum’s future, “nothing has been taken off the table.”

A sign once sat on the corner of 7th Avenue S and 22nd Street S promising jobs by 2018 on Commerce Park.
A sign once sat on the corner of 7th Avenue S and 22nd Street S promising jobs by 2018 on Commerce Park. [ Times ]

Chief’s Creole Cafe sits beside the Woodson museum and is run by Elihu Brayboy and his wife Carolyn. Elihu Brayboy is also on the board of Deuces Live, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring 22nd Street S. He said he was happy to hear about the expansion plans.

He would be fine with the museum moving to Commerce Park or staying where it is — provided the parking situation is improved. His problem with Commerce Park is that it seems like nothing can ever get built there.

“I’d hate to see this thing go there and get tied up," he said.

• • •

Gerdes said the council needs to start investing money in the project before it talks about a new site. He asked City Council to make a contribution — $1 million to $1.5 million — to start planning. Council plans to discuss that contribution at its Dec. 12 meeting.

“We need to start the financial commitment process," Gerdes said. "Because if you don’t do that, you never get to the where question.”

The initial investment, he said, would help the museum project move from “concepts" to “plans.” Council member Steve Kornell said such a commitment would encourage private benefactors to step up.

After that, Tomalin said, it is an effort the museum must drive, not the city.

“There’s no reason to assume that the city would be the ones to lead it. It’s an effort by the museum and for the museum...," she said. "It’s not for the city to take over the project in any way, but to enable it and help make sure that it gets done.”

She said the city will wait for a formal request from the museum.

Scott said that posture left her worried. And she said Gerdes’ proposed investment isn’t enough.

“My concern is, you know how limited the museum’s capacity is," she said.

She said the Woodson doesn’t have the ability to raise money like the Salvador Dalí Museum and the St. Petersburg Museum of History, both of which are undergoing major expansions on prime, city-owned downtown waterfront land. The city gave $1 million to the Museum of History, which has also asked for county money and private donations for its $7 million expansion. The Dali has not asked for city funds for its expansion. The city contributed $2.5 million before the Dali moved into its waterfront location in 2011.

“I am a part-time executive director," Scott said. "We have a part-time staff person and an intern. How can you compare our abilities to do what these other museums are doing with such limited staff support?

“You’re suggesting we should pull ourselves up by the bootstraps," she said, “and we don’t even have boots?”