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St. Petersburg announces plan to buy con­tro­ver­sial Woodson African American Museum

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announces the city’s plan to purchase the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum on Tuesday morning. 
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announces the city’s plan to purchase the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum on Tuesday morning. 
Published Mar. 11, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The city will try to purchase the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, quelling a controversy that has been brewing for months.

Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin announced their intentions Tuesday at a news conference outside the small community museum on Ninth Avenue S near 22nd Street, an area in Midtown targeted for rejuvenation.

"The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American museum is not only an important cultural asset in this city but is also an important historical asset to this community," Kriseman told the crowd, which included residents and city officials. "This city has a keen interest in making sure it not only survives, but thrives."

Applause erupted when he announced his plan, with one community activist shouting out, "Hallelujah!"

"Today is about more than a beloved building that sits under this canopy of oaks in the heart of our city," Tomalin said. "It's about each of the places, and most importantly the people, it honors and serves. It's about the history of this corridor."

The administration's decision means the city will now officially step into the middle of a tense showdown between the museum and its landlord, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.

The museum was created in the early 2000s as part of the Jordan Park housing project upgrades and funded by a multimillion-dollar federal grant. Last summer, housing authority officials approached St. Petersburg College about taking over the Woodson — without telling museum board members, who felt like it was a takeover. The college subsequently backed away from the idea.

In January, amid a public outcry, the housing authority board voted 4-3 to sell the museum building and gave operators six months to get out.

Since then, officials, including some from Sen. Marco Rubio's office, have worked behind the scenes on a solution. Last week, federal housing officials, who have final say over any deal because of the previous federal grant, came to town and surprised many when they declared that no matter who owns the building, it must stay an African American history museum.

On Tuesday, housing authority CEO Darrell Irions lauded the mayor's announcement.

"We're not in the museum business, but we do want a museum to be there," Irions said.

Still, several things need to happen first.

They need to set a purchase price. An appraisal recently ordered by the housing authority valued the museum property at $663,000, but even Irions thought the figure may be high. Kriseman said he will get his own property evaluation.

The city might be able to get the building for a less money if it can prove its proposal offers significant benefit for Jordan Park residents.

"I think we could definitely show that," said council member Charlie Gerdes, credited with being the first to publicly float the idea of the city buying the building. "To me, this is such a win-win."

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The mayor and City Council need to identify a funding source. And technically, the existing museum is still under a lease agreement set to end in July. For that to change, the housing authority board would need to reverse its vote.

Board members Delphinia Davis and Harry Harvey, who also attended Tuesday's announcement, said that they plan to pay close attention to the negotiations over the next several months, but that it would be premature to reverse the vote right now.

"I've always wanted this museum to stay right here," said Harvey, who voted to sell the building. "This is what I wanted to happen all along."

Museum board chairwoman Terri Lipsey Scott said she's grateful for Kriseman's intervention and remains hopeful things will work out. "In St. Petersburg, black lives matter," Scott said. "That's what history is all about."

Times staff writer Katie Mettler contributed to this report.

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