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Newtown museum pitched as cultural catalyst

After an outpouring of public support for a proposed African American art center and history museum, city officials are advancing negotiations with the group behind the plan.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. August 12, 2021
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For more than two hours Aug. 2, members of the public came before the City Commission and urged the board to move forward with a proposal to build an African American art center and history museum on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

To Vickie Oldham, a leading organizer behind the museum concept, the breadth of support was a tangible sign of progress in her efforts to preserve and document the history of Sarasota’s Black community.

“From my standpoint, it appears that people are really understanding the challenges that we face as it relates to this racial reckoning that’s happening not only in the U.S. but in the world,” Oldham said. “I can see that people get it, and I can see that the work that we began with the city in 2015 is gaining traction.”

Oldham is the president and CEO of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, a group founded in 2018 with the mission of creating a museum showcasing the history and cultural contributions of Black Sarasota residents. The coalition developed out of the Newtown Alive project, which the city backed in 2015 to produce research and multimedia content about the Black community.

In 2018, the city adopted an agreement that provided the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition with $200,000 in seed money toward the art center and history museum concept. As part of that agreement with the city, SAACC was responsible for researching site options and presenting them to the city. SAACC leadership focused its attention on city-owned land at Dr. Martin Luther King Way and Orange Avenue, with the possibility of incorporating more adjacent vacant land.

At the Aug. 2 City Commission meeting, SAACC presented an update on its planning work and asked officials for permission to discuss an agreement that would allow the group to use the 1.3-acre property. The commission voted 5-0 to direct staff to negotiate a land-use deal that would facilitate the development of a cultural center, bringing back a proposal for consideration at a future meeting.

The commission did have a series of questions about how the museum would look in reality. In particular, multiple commissioners expressed their interest in incorporating a mixture of uses into the development of the city-owned property, including a residential component, if possible. Commissioner Kyle Battie said he wanted any project on the land to serve as a catalyst for a neighborhood in need of revitalization.

“That’s why it’s imperative that there be mixed use because that’s going to be the economic driver,” Battie said.

During the presentation, representatives for SAACC said the museum would have economic benefits for Newtown on its own, citing data on cultural tourism in Sarasota and the success of similar projects in cities including Jackson, Mississippi, and Montgomery, Alabama. The group indicated a willingness to explore opportunities to incorporate different uses onto the site, citing SAACC’s 45-partner organizations as a potential resource for facilitating a residential or commercial component of the project.

Still, Oldham and others noted there was a finite amount of space on the property, cautioning that not everything officials desired may be possible. During the Aug. 2 meeting, Mayor Hagen Brody said that the feasibility of multiple uses could be an important factor when officials consider whether to continue pursuing the museum project.

“Ultimately, if mixed-use does not work and cannot work, then we’ll have to revisit it and see if that’s something that we want to move forward on,” Brody said.

Despite that lingering question, Oldham said she was thrilled with the outcome of the commission meeting. As negotiations with the city begin, SAACC is also preparing to undertake a fundraising campaign to support the museum project. According to the group’s presentation, the first phase of that campaign will begin this fall with a goal of $5 million.

Even before that gets underway, Oldham said the group has already received support from Sarasota’s philanthropic community, including one gift of $150,000 to underwrite the fundraising campaign. Between the financial support and the testimony encouraging the city to move forward, Oldham said she’s grateful for the momentum the community has given to the museum concept.

“People are already giving, and that shows me they support what we’re doing,” Oldham said. “It is very, very encouraging.”