With pandemic having put damper on actions Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition was to complete last spring, using city grant funds, commissioners delay date for completion to July

Mayor Brody asks the nonprofit’s leaders to work with County Commission on potential museum wing attached to Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Library

This is the homepage banner on the website of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition.

Nearly two years ago — in April 2019 — the Sarasota City Commission and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition (SAACC) entered into a $200,000 agreement regarding the creation of, and fundraising for, an African American Historical and Cultural Center.

The funds came from the Newtown Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) Trust Fund. As of Feb. 16, $167,932 had been spent, a city staff memo reported.

The agreement’s Scope of Services called for the nonprofit to complete specific initiatives and present a final report to the commission in March 2020.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in delays in the SAACC’s work, Vickie Oldham, the nonprofit’s president, explained to the commissioners during their regular meeting on Feb. 16.

After almost 30 minutes of discussion, the board members voted unanimously to amend the agreement, allowing the SAACC to wait until July to present to the commission its final “deliverables.” Among those would be a conceptual plan showing the interior and exterior designs for the Cultural Center and completion of a fundraising plan for the project.

However, Mayor Hagen Brody voiced concerns about the future establishment of the Cultural Center, saying he wants to avoid a situation comparable to that involving the Miss Susie’s restaurant and employee training project planned for Newtown.

Brody noted that the commission provided funding to launch the Miss Susie’s initiative but “can’t get to the end of [the process].”

(The commissioners discussed Miss Susie’s in January. Stephen Seidensticker of the TableSeide Restaurant Group in Sarasota died several months after the groundbreaking for Miss Susie’s. His daughter, Lisa, told the commissioners she was working on fundraising to revive the project. Stevie Montes-Freeman, the city’s interim economic development general manager, talked of the potential of either Newtown CRA funds or money from the city’s Economic Development Fund being used to help pay for some of the expenses to help re-launch the initiative.)

Interim Economic Development General Manager Stevie Montes-Freeman (left) and Vickie Oldham, president of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, appear before the City Commission on Feb. 16. Coalition Chair Dr. Washington Hill (top right) and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch participate in the discussion via virtual meeting technology. News Leader image

On Feb. 16, Brody told Oldham, “I want you to approach the county about building a wing onto the [Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Library to house the Cultural Center]. That is something sustainable, lasting. It’s obviously in the right location,” Brody added, referring to the Newtown community.

The library stands at 2801 Newtown Blvd.

“I think it could be a good partnership [with the county],” Brody said.

Pursuing all the plans for the Cultural Center with money from the Newtown CRA Trust Fund, Brody continued, “is going to be a rocky road.”

His recollection, he said, was that the commission approved the $200,000 for the African American Historical and Cultural Center with the understanding that that would be the last of the CRA funds allocated to the project.

The Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota County Library is located on Newtown Boulevard. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Oldham replied that representatives of SAACC have met with all of the county commissioners about the potential for working together on the center. She also acknowledged, “I am a little nervous about another Miss Susie’s situation here.”

An update and some criticism

At the outset of the Feb. 16 discussion, interim economic development General Manager Montes-Freeman pointed out, “The real purpose behind the [April 2019] agreement was to support an initial phase for the development of a Newtown cultural arts center in the Newtown CRA area.” Plans for the permanent center are scheduled for a presentation to the commission during one of its regular meetings the first week of April, she added.

The request on the Feb. 16 agenda, Montes-Freeman continued, “is really a housekeeping item. … There were some challenges,” she continued, as the SAACC tried to meet its deadlines for all the steps the 2019 agreement specified.

“I’d like to let the commissioners know that this is hard work and this is heart work,” Oldham of the SAACC told the board members. “Who could anticipate a global pandemic that would shut our world down, really.”

Additionally, Montes-Freeman said, on Sept. 21, 2020, the commissioners unanimously directed city staff to negotiate a lease for use of the historic Leonard Reid house as a temporary site of the Cultural Center.

The staff memo prepared for that September 2020 meeting explained that the owners of the house, John and Tom Hermanson, wanted to develop the property where the house stands. City staff, “recognizing the critical role the Leonard Reid family played in the establishment of Sarasota’s earliest African American community, began researching publicly owned locations in the Rosemary District … for consideration,” the memo added.

This slide from the September 2020 meeting shows the exterior of the Leonard Reid house. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Rosemary District previously was known as Overtown. In 1885, Visit Sarasota County points out, Overtown became Sarasota’s first African American community.

Ultimately, the September 2020 memo continued, property the city recently had acquired at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Orange Avenue “emerged as the primary option for consideration.”

The owners had agreed to donate the estimated $140,000 value of the Leonard Reid house, the memo pointed out, “and pay all [costs] associated with the move of the home from its current location” to the Orange Avenue/Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way property. However, the city would have to pay for site preparation, including water, sewer and electric hook-up fees; permitting and impact fees; landscaping; and parking, the memo said.

Montes-Freeman reminded the commissioners on Feb. 16 that $116,000 was approved for that work.

Additionally, during her remarks, Oldham listed a number of initiatives she had undertaken during the past months. For example: “We had virtual career and college counseling for Booker High School students, where we connected them with mentors around the country,” as the pandemic made it difficult for them to meet with potential local mentors.

She also had set up a coaching session for musical theater students to work with a Tony Award-winner, Oldham said.

This is a partial list of community stakeholder sessions the SAACC has conducted. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

For a third example, Oldham noted that, on Feb. 10, an exhibit about Buck O’Neil would open, in conjunction with the coming start of Major League Baseball (MLB) Spring Training for the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves in Sarasota County.

(Major League Baseball webpages devoted to The Negro Leagues call O’Neil “ a slick-fielding first baseman” who had a .283 career batting average in his 11 years in the Negro Leagues. He was a two-time Negro American League batting champion and later a manager of the Kansas City Monarchs from 1948 to 1955, “leading the team to four Negro American League titles,” the webpages add.)

(WUSF notes that O’Neil “worked the celery fields in Sarasota while his father ran a pool hall in the African-American community of Newtown.”)

(“Although O’Neil never reached Major League Baseball as a player,” the MLB webpages continue, “he made history with the Chicago Cubs in 1962, becoming the first Black coach in MLB history.)

Moreover, Oldham told the commissioners on Feb. 16, “This national reckoning on race also took us by surprise. … When I first started this history project, there was a little bit of interest [in such that topic].” However, Oldham continued, after the “George Floyd murder [in May 2020] and all the things that have happened in our nation, there is a great interest right now in the work that I am doing in documenting Newtown’s history and opening up this Cultural Arts Center.”

Then Oldham pointed out that after the city purchased the Leonard Reid house and offered the SAACC the opportunity to move into it temporarily, the SAACC “had to pivot” and change its business plan and budget “to accommodate a different kind of cultural center.” Nonetheless, she emphasized, “We are thankful for that opportunity; we really, really are.”

After Oldham completed her remarks, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch thanked her and Dr. Washington Hill, chair of the SAACC, “for all of their work.” Ahearn-Koch added, “This grant for this program is of … great value to our community. … This [Cultural Center] has been in the works for years and years” — even before she joined the commission in May 2017, she noted.

“I appreciate Commissioner Ahearn-Koch’s comments, and I concur,” Commissioner Liz Alpert told her colleagues.

One speaker who signed up to address the board members on the topic — businessman Martin Hyde — criticized the SAACC’s use of close to $168,000 of the $200,000 grant, saying the money was “spent for literally zero gain of the community …” He added, “Most of the money seems to have been spent on exhaustive luxury travel to multiple locations,” when the research that travel involved could have been undertaken “by a sixth-grader without any cost.”

Hyde further criticized Oldham for not even living in the county, let alone Newtown.

Addressing new District 1 Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie — who represents Newtown — Hyde added, “You have to demand more than the empty conversations.”

In response to Hyde’s remarks, Oldham explained that many of the discussions that SAACC representatives had conducted with Black museum directors around the country “were held via Zoom. … There was no traveling during COVID around the country.”

These are part of the ‘deliverables’ for the SAACC, included in the Feb. 16 City Commission agenda packet. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Hill, the SAACC chair, added that some of the visits that members of the nonprofit did make to other African American cultural facilities were facets of personal travel “at no cost to the city.”

Moreover, Hill stressed, “These kinds of centers … boost pride in the community. … Our stories are finally getting told. Very little was documented about this Black community before the city funded the project in 2015 and by how we leveraged it. We’ve done so much more than you asked.”

Oldham also explained that she grew up on Orange Avenue in Newtown. “I may not live there now … but that does not mean we do not have a stake in our community. … We still love it.”

More questions

Vice Mayor Erik “E” Arroyo — who was elected in November 2020 — asked late in the discussion why the SAACC was unable to meet its original deadline for completing the items noted in the city agreement.

“Things shut down [because of the pandemic],” Oldham replied.

Vickie Oldham is shown on the SAACC website. Image courtesy Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition

When Arroyo then asked whether the SAACC would be seeking a lease payment of $1 per year for the Reid house, City Manager Marlon Brown responded that staff is negotiating the terms with the nonprofit. The lease, Brown added, would come to the commissioners for final approval.

Mayor Brody told Oldham that he had no problem with extending the deadline for the “deliverables” in the 2019 agreement.

Nonetheless, he added, he was worried about the future of the Cultural Center itself.

When he asked about the amount of money the SAACC has raised through private donations, Oldham told him, “It’s about $80,000, and money is still flowing in, and this was from quietly asking for contributions. There is no robust, aggressive fundraising happening.”
However, she pointed out, “In the next six months, I do anticipate that would happen.”