Vote for Culture

What exactly does that mean? Today we know it means that two museums will receive hundreds of millions of dollars to build hulking structures in a waterfront park. But on November 2, most people had no clue

In May 2002, armed with the appearance of a public mandate, museum representatives met with Commissioner Johnny Winton, whose district includes Bicentennial Park. He agreed to back the museums' move into a renovated park, but only if the museum buildings were limited to four acres each. A month later the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce designated "Museum Park Miami" as a "critical, communitywide goal." In July the Miami City Commission designated Museum Park as the official design vision for Bicentennial Park. A resolution specified that each museum site should "approximate a four-acre footprint, including buildings, loading docks, visitor drop-offs, internal site roadways, under-building parking, and for-charge outdoor features."

But the details wouldn't really matter. The museums would soon include an additional four acres each in their plans, for a total of sixteen acres, or 55 percent of the park.


Parks advocates wonder if Museum Park will really be as idyllic as this 2001 rendering by Dover, Kohl & Partners
Jonathan Postal
Parks advocates wonder if Museum Park will really be as idyllic as this 2001 rendering by Dover, Kohl & Partners
UEL founding president Greg Bush pushed for maximum green space and minimal museum impact in Bicentennial Park
Jonathan Postal
UEL founding president Greg Bush pushed for maximum green space and minimal museum impact in Bicentennial Park

MAM and its partners also felt entitled to something else from the public: money. "We always thought that if we could get $100 million from the public and $75 million privately, we could have a world-class museum," Podhurst says. "I don't believe you can do it in this town without public help. We are not blessed with 500 of the major corporations in the world. We have some very good citizens but we need the public and the private partnership together. In Europe the public does it all. Museums like the Louvre are state institutions and are funded by the public."

One possibility for future funding was county bond money. In February 2001, just before Merrett Stierheim left his post as county manager, he sent a memo to Miami-Dade commissioners urging them to seize a golden opportunity. The county would soon finish paying off debt it incurred after voters approved a half-billion-dollar bond issue in 1972 to fund public-works projects, including Metrorail, Metrozoo, and Bicentennial Park. That meant Miami-Dade could now issue billions of dollars in bonds for new projects without having to raise property taxes. But Stierheim's successor, Steve Shiver, stalled for a year and a half, and by the time George Burgess replaced Shiver in June 2003, science museum trustees had grown restless.

They had hired a new president, Gillian Thomas, whose claim to fame was her role as executive director of At-Bristol, a $150 million waterfront development that included a science museum with wildlife exhibits and an IMAX theater. It opened in Bristol, England, in 2000. She commissioned pollster Sergio Bendixen to conduct a survey, which found 75 percent support among likely Miami-Dade voters for a bayfront science museum. Thomas had hired lobbyist Brian May, a former top aide to Alex Penelas, and they hatched a plan to go it alone by putting a measure on the March 2004 presidential primary ballot, asking voters to approve a $200 million bond for a new Science Center of the Americas in Bicentennial Park. "If the county wasn't going ahead with a bond issue, we thought we might as well get on with doing one of our own," Thomas explains.

But the science museum's gambit imploded. Thomas, her board chairwoman Louise Valdes Fauli, and May had not lined up enough commissioners even to bring the referendum proposal to a vote. At a September meeting the commission forced them to withdraw the measure and return to the drawing table with MAM.

The museum episode did serve to prod Burgess into moving ahead on a new general obligation bond (GOB), as Stierheim had recommended. Serious work began in early 2004, and by mid-April county officials had held 47 so-called town hall meetings to publicize and promote a colossal bond program. The Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, a group of political appointees, recommended that institutions housed in county-owned facilities -- MAM, the science museum, Vizcaya -- should be priorities. Soon the wish list for GOB projects had escalated to hundreds of proposals costing roughly seven billion dollars.

During this critical interval, while Podhurst was at his summer home in Aspen, he and Lawrence spoke by telephone with Burgess to remind him that it would take a $100 million public investment to build a major collecting museum. "Our position was: öWe're not playing a game with $100 million. We really think in order to pull off a world-class museum we need $175 million, of which we will raise $75 million privately,'" Lawrence recounts. "[Burgess] never made any commitment to us." Lawrence also met individually with commissioners to tell them "this was really important to achieve for this community, and in order to do it right it would cost this, and this is the kind of money we were willing to raise."

Eventually Burgess and his staff whittled down the bond issue to $2.9 billion worth of projects, the museums' new buildings among them. The manager had planned to recommend only $85 million for MAM and $150 million for the science museum, according to Bob McCammon, president of the historical museum. But Burgess restored their initial requests when a plan fell through to buy the Freedom Tower with bond money, freeing up about $40 million and prompting the historical museum to partner with the science museum.

That was good news for museum advocates. The bad news was the county attorney's determination that the bond would have to be broken into several separate ballot questions in order to comply with state law. MAM's Podhurst, still vacationing in Aspen, called First Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg to plead the museums' case. "Aaron called me up and said, öCan we put the museums in with a lot of other things?'" Greenberg recalls. "I think there was a sentiment that the museums might not get the votes they needed standing alone. And I said, öNo. The answer is no we can't.'"

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