From lunch counter sit-ins to a garbage workers’ strike to school desegregation, St. Petersburg has a rich story to tell of civil rights, African-American trailblazers and vibrant black neighborhoods. Combine that with Florida history, and there is enormous potential for a modern black history museum to add to the city’s impressive collection of museums. But the tiny Dr. Carter G. Woodson African-American Museum has miles to go before it’s prepared to vigorously pursue such a vision, and it’s premature for the city to give the museum public land that should be used to attract more jobs.
The Woodson museum opened in 2006 as an effort to celebrate the area’s African-American history. The organization takes its name from the man known as the father of Black History Month. Although Woodson does not have ties to St. Petersburg, this modest museum is the only one to have his name. The city bought the land the nonprofit museum sits on from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority for $680,000 in 2015 and leased it back to the museum for $1 a year. But it was premature for the city to recently promise the museum five acres for a big new home.
First, the museum needs to show it can rally supporters and raise a significant amount of money for such an ambitious expansion. Museum leaders have said they need between $15 million and $20 million for the construction of the new museum and five years of operational costs. It’s reasonable to expect some public money to go toward such an effort, just as it has for other museums in St. Petersburg. But the city cannot be on the hook for most of the cost.
Next, the museum should secure what it considers its permanent collection. The museum now is essentially one room centered around traveling exhibits. But the museum’s executive director says there is something of a permanent collection and some items need a climate-controlled space to display. An expanded collection should focus in part on St. Petersburg’s own history, but an African-American museum with ambition should cover the region and state as well.
Finally, the city should be more thoughtful about its development of the Commerce Park land. The city had 12 years to develop the 13 acres and create jobs. But none of the proposals worked out, and it recently was asked to give back the $2.2 million given to it by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city now has prematurely promised five acres of Commerce Park to the museum, which does not have the money, the permanent collection or the broad community support to justify such a gift. One group is suggesting workforce housing and street-level commercial development for part of the site, and the city should keep pursuing the creation of jobs that the community needs.
The debate over where to put the Woodson museum suggests there is potential for it to build on its modest beginnings and become much more than it is. But pursuing that dream will require significantly more financial and human capital from the private sector. Those commitments should be made before the city gives away acres of land that should be used to create jobs.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.