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More talks to come over future of Woodson African American museum

Published May 23, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — After a contentious discussion that inspired boos and shouts from a 50-person audience, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority postponed any decision on the future of a local African-American museum.

Instead, the housing authority wants to meet with officials of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum to discuss a potential role for St. Petersburg College in its operation.

A battle over the museum's space in the Jordan Park public housing community began about a month ago, when the housing authority invited the museum board to what was described in an email as a "workshop" with St. Petersburg College. Terri Lipsey Scott, chairwoman of the museum's board, imagined a financially beneficial partnership with the college.

But board members found themselves listening to a proposal that SPC take over the lease of the building and the management of the museum, absent any collaboration with the current Woodson board.

That meeting, she said, was the first time she or anyone on her board had been notified they might lose their organization.

At a meeting Tuesday of the St. Petersburg College Board of Trustees, Scott and a dozen other museum supporters voiced their disdain for what some have called a "hostile takeover."

Their concern baffled SPC president Bill Law. College officials said the housing authority had approached SPC about drafting a proposal for the space.

On Thursday, Law emailed Scott and said the college would not pursue its proposal until the Woodson board and the housing authority solved whatever got them "crosswired."

That, however, is still unclear.

"Where does this all come from?" Scott asked at Thursday's housing authority meeting. "Where's the love? Where's the support? Where's the commitment?"

Afterward, Housing Authority CEO Darrell Irions said that about a year ago, the authority decided to opt out of its partnership with the Woodson and enter into a strict landlord-tenant relationship. Since 2006, housing commissioners had sat on Woodson's board, but after the museum failed to provide receipts and audit information, Irions said, the authority decided it "didn't want to be a part of that."

So the authority drew up new paperwork stating the Woodson's lease agreement would expire at the end of this month. It was later extended to July 15, though Scott said she just assumed it would be renewed, which had never before been a formal process.

Irions said during the meeting that the Woodson was not a fully functioning museum, as it was created to be, but more of a social gathering space. Museum supporters in the crowd objected, referencing the 23 exhibits, 11 youth events, four movie premieres, six book signings and 26 community engagements they've sponsored since 2008.

After the board postponed the lease discussion, Scott said she was "grateful for the wisdom" of board members and looked forward to meeting to discuss options. The housing authority meets again in June, where the vote could come up again.

Katie Mettler can be reached at kmettler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913.

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