Magic Primeval, Part 2

On the eve of its permanent disfigurement, the Miami Circle unleashed its mysterious powers of survival

After much wrangling county officials and developer Michael Baumann agreed on a settlement price, the nice round figure of $25 million. They also threw in another $1.7 million to cover legal fees and related costs. The salient question then became: Where would the county come up with $26.7 million?

Before inking the settlement agreement, Mayor Alex Penelas met in a closed-door session with county commissioners to seek their approval to proceed. Several factors encouraged their acceptance of the deal. Firm commitments were in hand for at least some of the cash. For example on the day the agreement was reached, September 28, 1999, the oversight board of the Safe Neighborhood Parks bond program voted to earmark three million dollars toward purchase of the archaeological treasure. The State of Florida also seemed willing to ante up, though no specific amount had been pledged.

Additionally two possibilities had emerged for managing the site once the public took ownership. The Jay I. Kislak Foundation and Florida International University proposed to build and operate a museum they estimated would cost about ten million dollars. Kislak, a wealthy Miami Lakes real estate financier, had amassed a renowned collection of pre-Columbian art. The museum would be an ideal place to house the collection for public viewing. Another encouraging prospect had been announced six months earlier. On March 25, 1999, Sen. Bob Graham introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to explore the feasibility of annexing the circle as part of Biscayne National Park.

Armed with these possibilities, county commissioners gave tentative approval for Penelas to proceed. The mayor, Baumann, and assorted county officials promptly flew to Tallahassee to beg for money. In a unanimous vote the Gov. Jeb Bush and the state cabinet agreed to provide the county with $15 million toward the purchase -- contingent on a thorough archaeological review to verify its significance. (The review confirmed county archaeologist Bob Carr's assessment.) On October 1, 1999, in a special session, the county commission formally voted to approve the $26.7 million settlement.

County officials still faced a vexing problem. By 5:00 p.m. November 30, 1999, they were required to pay Baumann $20 million. As that deadline loomed, they had only $18 million in hand. Not only did they need $2 million in a hurry, within eighteen months they would need $6.7 million more as a final payment.

Where would the county find this $8.7 million to complete the deal? As usual with the circle, time was the enemy. "We started late out of the blocks," Spring recalls, "and we've been constantly rushing to catch up."

Given the global outpouring of support for the Miami Circle, one might think $8.7 million would be effortless to raise. Not so, say county officials. "We have boxes and boxes of letters begging us to save the circle, but the contributions have not been commensurate," says Erica McKinney, an aide to Mayor Penelas. "I don't know why people haven't come forward."

Most local fundraising efforts, while heartfelt, didn't amount to much. One example was an October 1999 event held by citizen activists at Fairchild Tropical Garden; it netted a mere $20,000. Many donations have come from schoolchildren, according to McKinney. One fourth-grade class contributed $200. But the county needed millions, not hundreds. "We are past the point where $5, $10, or $20 can help us out," notes McKinney.

As November 30 neared, Baumann himself offered to lend the county the full $8.7 million at twelve percent interest. Instead, just before the deadline bell rang, a San Francisco-based conservation group, the Trust for Public Land, offered to lend the money at 8.5 percent interest. With one day left, county commissioners voted to accept the loan. And so Michael Baumann exited the tale of the Miami Circle.

New deadline clocks began ticking immediately. The county had one year to make an initial payment of $2 million on the loan from the conservation group, and the countdown for the remaining $6.7 began. Due date: November 30, 2001.

Mayor Penelas and county officials had hoped the stopgap provided by the Trust for Public Land would buy them enough time to raise the rest of the money, but that proved to be a source of frustration. "Donor cultivation is a miserably slow process that requires staff, resources, and time," says Spring. "Government doesn't do it very well." One thing that has made it particularly difficult is the uncertainty regarding the precise fate of the circle. Technically the 2.2-acre site is owned by the State of Florida and managed by the division of historical resources, which must approve any future plans. The Florida secretary of state is putting the finishing touches on an advisory council that will review proposed uses and management plans. Council membership will likely be announced in December, but the entire process could take more than a year, according to state officials.

This past March the county snagged donations to cover the initial repayment to the Trust for Public Land. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) each kicked in one million dollars. But objections were raised by several members of the MPO, which deals principally with regional transportation issues. Among the dissenters were Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, who believed the circle had nothing to do with the MPO's primary mission. But arguments that the circle's acquisition would add to plans for a Miami River greenway corridor carried the day.

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