ST. PETERSBURG — Visiting federal officials on Thursday checked the local housing authority board's plan to sell the building that is home to the city's only African-American museum.
Volunteers who run the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum were told in January that they had six months to vacate the property at 2240 Ninth Ave. S.
But for the building to be sold, there needs to be demonstrative public support for such a plan, officials from the U.S. Department of Housing an Urban Development reportedly told Mayor Rick Kriseman and other top city officials. What's more, even if the building is sold, it must remain an African-American museum, Kriseman and others were told during a meeting Thursday afternoon at City Hall.
"They've laid down some clear markers about what needs to happen," said city spokesman Ben Kirby. "They apparently made it clear that these two thresholds need to be met."
Still, Darrell Irions, CEO of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, didn't back away from his desire to sell the building, which he said will provide money for other housing projects.
Irions did admit, however, that he was surprised by HUD officials' requirement that the building, which he said recently appraised for $663,000, must remain a museum no matter who owns it.
"I've got to figure out a way to balance interests of the city, interests of the museum and interests of the housing authority," Irions said. "HUD is hoping cooler heads will prevail. I think we're all hoping that."
Interest in the controversy over the future of the Woodson Museum only seems to have heightened since the board's 4-3 vote in January to sell the building.
Three HUD officials, visiting from field offices in Jacksonville and Miami, came to town this week for "fact finding," a department spokeswoman said Thursday.
The situation has also attracted at least one powerful observer: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Staffers from his office have been in contact with people on both sides of the issue in recent weeks, according to spokesperson Brooke Sammon.
"We'll continue monitoring the situation as it progresses," Sammon told the Tampa Bay Times in an e-mail Thursday.
Though the proclamations this week by HUD officials might seem to offer some relief to museum supporters, board chairman Terri Lipsey Scott said she remains frustrated.
HUD officials, during a three-hour meeting at the museum on Thursday, also said they couldn't get involved in a local landlord-tenant dispute, Scott said. Their only power would be to approve or not approve the housing authority's application to dispose of the property, which has not yet been submitted.
Council member Karl Nurse, who also went to the meeting, said he will encourage board members to put a hold on plans to get rid of the current museum and tenants at another commercial building the housing authority wants to sell.
"It looks like housing authority has not actually asked for permission yet to sell those buildings, and they apparently need to ask permission," Nurse said. "If they're actually interested in fiduciary responsibility, you don't evict your tenants with no plan B."
So ultimately, reconsideration about the Woodson's lease would need to come from the same housing authority board that wants to sell the building.
"I'm grateful (HUD officials) came to review, evaluate and investigate this whole issue," Scott said. "I'm not certain we are any closer today than we were yesterday, though."
Contact Kameel Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.