Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delehanty, who believes the people have spoken, has reason to smile
Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delehanty, who believes the people have spoken, has reason to smile
Jonathan Postal

Vote for Culture

Long before they lead the charge to annex more than half of Bicentennial Park, the good folks who run the Miami Art Museum should consider offering a master class on the art of political subterfuge. They are masters at it.

Not only did the museum's director and trustees persuade one of the area's toughest environmental groups to advocate constructing two massive buildings in Miami's last unadulterated waterfront park, they also managed to lure 57 percent of local voters into giving them an astounding $275 million to make it happen.

As a result of the November 2 passage of county bond issue #8, the Miami Art Museum stands to rake in $100 million while its partners in this caper -- the Miami Museum of Science and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida -- will reap a cool $175 million.

Museum administrators and their boards -- packed with real estate developers, attorneys, and other members of Miami's business elite -- had good reason to believe that if large numbers of voters were truly informed, a $275 million museum bond issue would fail. So with the help of key county officials, they crafted a stealthy, sneaky campaign. It worked like a charm.

For nine long years MAM director Suzanne Delehanty and her board of trustees have dreamed of building a big new facility. In 1995, soon after she was hired, Delehanty spent six months determining what museum supporters and other interested members of the public wanted from the institution, which at the time was a county-run outfit named the Center for the Fine Arts. The vision that emerged was of a collecting museum (rather than merely an exhibition space for traveling shows) that reflected Miami's role as a nexus between North and South America and which would be located on a site that could contain a sculpture garden.

Its location in the Miami-Dade Cultural Center in the heart of downtown, alongside the historical museum and the main library, was too small for those ambitions. (MAM is now independent, although it leases space from the county. One of the museum's biggest donors, the county contributes more than one million dollars per year.) In 1997 David Lawrence, then MAM board chairman and Miami Herald publisher, hired a planning firm to search for new sites. Bicentennial Park, one of the last open green spaces downtown, topped the list.

Meanwhile trustees at the science museum, confined to an old county-owned building across Bayshore Drive from Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, were also ready to bust out. But because their building is historic, that was impossible. A prestigious affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution in 2000 intensified the desire for expansion.

Mindful of the substantial political and financial clout wielded by museum trustees, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas brought the two institutions together. The museums' boards adopted a joint resolution in July 2000 to collaborate on a plan to build two new facilities in Bicentennial Park. Essential to that plan was the need for a private-public partnership with county government. "David Lawrence and I talked to Mayor Penelas and to county managers many times, telling them that Miami-Dade County needed a great art museum," says attorney and veteran Democratic Party operative Aaron Podhurst, who replaced Lawrence as MAM board chairman that year. "We got a lot of encouragement, but nothing firm."

The museums weren't alone in having designs on beleaguered Bicentennial Park. Florida Marlins owner John Henry was obsessed with having a publicly financed stadium built there. The Marlins' interest served the museums well. In February 2001, with opposition to Henry mounting, the Miami City Commission hired Dover, Kohl & Partners of Coral Gables to create a master plan for the 29-acre park. Part of the process was a design charrette, a gathering in which members of the public could have a hand in imagining the park's future. Some 350 ordinary citizens attended the daylong event at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel. Under the guidance of Dover, Kohl, a number of large tables were spread around the meeting room, each accommodating a dozen or so volunteers and professional facilitators. Each table aimed to reach some kind of consensus regarding a redesigned Bicentennial Park. Large sheets of paper were used to sketch out ideas, which would be presented at the end of the session. Oddly, at each table one or more volunteers insistently proposed including the art and science museums in the park.

The museums had stacked the charrette.

"Participatory democracy -- it's a beautiful thing," MAM's lobbyist Dusty Melton says with a smile. "Clearly the charrette would be the defining moment in the planning process. Of course we [museum supporters] showed up in huge numbers. Why everyone else failed to do that, go ask them." And so when the charrette leaders gathered up the designs, all featured museums. The people had spoken -- apparently.

"They out-organized us," concedes Greg Bush, founding president of the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, which had vigorously opposed a baseball stadium in the park. "It was a set-up for the museums."

MAM and the science museum capitalized on their successful effort to influence the charrette. They coined the name "Museum Park Miami" and insinuated themselves into a City of Miami bond issue in November 2001 that provided $3.5 million to each museum for initial planning. Frustrated Marlins owner Henry threw in the towel.

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.

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.'"

MAM wasn't the only one worried that multiple bond questions would expose individual projects to harsh scrutiny. Burgess was also concerned, and wanted to lump everything into one ballot question, thus making it impossible to identify individual projects. "The county manager and the county administration, relying on the political advice, would have loved one [bond] question," Greenberg notes. "We collectively felt that eight was the fewest we could get away with." And so the $2.9 billion bond would be broken into eight separate ballot questions, with the $275 million Museum Park proposal landing at the bottom, in #8.

The fears of exposure and scrutiny were confirmed this past June, when the Vizcaya board commissioned Dario Moreno to poll likely voters about the bond projects. "We did focus groups and we did other things and what we found is the more you explain to people what's in all these bonds, the less likely they are to support it," says Moreno, director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center. "It's very easy to get people to concentrate on one thing they don't like -- for example, the Haitian museum for whatever reason, or the Cuban Historical Museum, or the Black Archives, or for some reason Vizcaya or the science museum. So if you advertise that this money is going for Vizcaya, someone who might like some other museum would say, öWell, why is it going there?' The rule of thumb is you talk about general issues like öculture.' With parks, you don't mention specific parks, you mention öparks.'"

And you don't mention "Miami Art Museum." Polls continued to show high approval ratings for the science museum, but MAM's numbers were hovering just over 50 percent. Thus the museum needed to hide somewhere in bond issue #8, and stay under the radar during any public campaign to win support for the bond issues. "There are folks who would say the more you get into details, the more you'll create perhaps confusion, and concern, and opposition," Burgess acknowledges.

To make matters worse for the museums, Mayor Alex Penelas was threatening to blow their cover. Demonstrating concern for fiscal responsibility while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, Penelas in July threatened to veto bond issue #8 unless the county manager put the museums' request for $275 million in a ballot question by itself. Citing the Performing Arts Center's nearly $68 million in cost overruns, the mayor also insisted on assurances from the museums that they would not drag the county into a similar debacle. And he wanted their commitment to preserve "a substantial" part of Bicentennial Park as open space.

The museum boards dutifully responded. "Please be assured that we will not seek additional capital funds from the county," states a July 26 letter to Burgess signed by MAM board chairman Podhurst and co-presidents Rose Ellen Meyerhoff Greene and Nedra Oren. The letter assures that 21 of the park's 29 acres would remain "green space." That, plus a similar letter from the science museum, did the trick. Penelas dropped his opposition.

Had the mayor scrutinized MAM's letter the way he thought voters should examine the entire Museum Park project, he might not have backed off. Here is the sentence that followed the words green space: "Within this 21-acre green space, four acres will be MAM's open sculpture park. The Museum of Science will also create a four-acre nature park." It was a neat bit of linguistic legerdemain. The museums still planned on claiming sixteen acres of Bicentennial Park, not the eight they wanted Penelas and Burgess to believe.

The letter's deviousness was in keeping with the language of bond issue #8 itself: "To construct and improve libraries, cultural facilities, and Head Start learning centers for preschool children to offer multicultural educational opportunities and activities, described in Resolution No. 919-04, adopted July 20, 2004, shall Miami-Dade County issue General Obligation Bonds to pay cost of such projects in a principal amount not exceeding $552,692,000, bearing interest not exceeding maximum legal rate, payable from ad valorem taxes?"

Even though half that $552.7 million was slated for MAM and the Miami Museum of Science, there was no mention of any museum. In contrast, the specifically named Head Start projects on the list are to receive a small fraction of the total -- just over $5.9 million. (Twenty-eight library projects and sixteen preservation projects were also on the list.)

"I have no idea how that occurred," Podhurst says of the curious ballot language. David Lawrence and Dusty Melton also say they had nothing to do with the phrasing.

County manager Burgess proudly takes credit for grouping Head Start, libraries, and cultural projects together in #8, and formulating the language of the question. "There was a lot of input from staff," he says. "I doubt very much that you had a landslide of support for Question 8 because of Head Start. It wasn't like, öOh, let's throw Head Start into Question 8 because that'll create a groundswell of support. That just wasn't the case."

According to Burgess, the word "museums" was omitted from the ballot language because of the legal limit of 75 words per question. (There were 65 in #8.) "Should I flag two projects because somebody out there has a real philosophical problem with those projects?" he asks. "Why didn't I flag three other projects that somebody doesn't like?"

With the fate of Museum Park in the balance, it was time for Miami-Dade's establishment to help ensure passage of the bonds. Keeping in mind advice from Dario Moreno, Al Lorenzo, Francois Illas, and other political strategists -- that success depended on a sufficiently vague campaign touting the importance of all eight bond questions -- heads of cultural groups and several of Miami's business leaders met with Burgess in August to discuss strategy. Hank Klein, vice chairman of Codina Realty Services; Allen Harper, chairman of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell Realtors; and real estate lawyer Jorge Luis Lopez, a Vizcaya trustee, would be in charge of raising private funds for a media campaign. Lopez (who also had a $50 million bond item for Vizcaya on the line) filed papers on September 17 to set up a political action committee dubbed Neighbors Building Better Communities.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Commissioner Winton -- the political vanguard of the city's real estate boom -- were among the first called into action. Their target: downtown real estate developers. Gordon Reyes & Company, a PR firm whose clients include companies with high-rise projects downtown, organized a fundraiser, which was held on September 22 at the JW Marriott in Coral Gables. By the end of the evening, several condo builders, including Tibor Hollo, Ugo Colombo, Jorge Perez, and Gregg Covin (whose high-rise condo across from Bicentennial Park is named 10 Museum Park) had donated $20,000 each. One company, Infinity at Brickell, gave $50,000.

Meanwhile, Klein, Harper, and Lopez were working their connections. The Miami Business Forum and the University of Miami kicked in $25,000 each. Vizcaya and MAM supplied $50,000 each. The Historical Association of Southern Florida, which operates the historical museum, wrote a check for $100,000, as did the Downtown Development Authority, whose board includes elected officials and business executives. In just over two weeks the PAC took in $536,000. Another $569,000 was rounded up over the next two weeks. The biggest sums were $100,000 from the Jackson Memorial Foundation, $100,000 from the science museum, another $50,000 each from Vizcaya and MAM, $50,000 from the Zoological Society of Florida, $50,000 from high-rise developer Terra International Developments, $25,000 from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and $25,000 from American Airlines.

About $700,000 of the more than $1.1 million raised was funneled to Turkel Advertising for production and placement of a single television commercial. The ad, which ran many times on most Spanish- and English-language stations, cunningly avoided specifics while imploring viewers to vote yes on all eight GOB questions if they really wanted a better Miami-Dade for their children and grandchildren. The PAC spent some $65,000 for Spanish, English, and Creole radio ads with the same theme. Campaign Data, a local political research firm that often works in tandem with pollster Dario Moreno and political strategist Al Lorenzo, received $67,000 for focus groups and voter surveys. Another $56,000 went to four groups, including the African-American Council of Christian Clergy, to "get out the vote." Coral Gables-based Washington Economics Group received $25,000 for an "economic impact study." The PAC even fed its election-day troops, running up a bill of $1200 at the Football Sandwich Shop in Little Haiti. In the end, it seemed that Greg Bush and the Urban Environment League once again had been out-organized.

Just a month before the election, the UEL had threatened to launch a public campaign against #8 unless the museums committed to limiting their projects to four acres each, the promise they'd made two years earlier to Johnny Winton. The commissioner says he was "irked" last year when Delehanty and Thomas began speaking publicly about taking control of another four acres each for outdoor features. "The museums hurt themselves by talking about eight acres each, because what they did was fuel the fire for the people who are bent on keeping them out of the park, period."

Though UEL president Nancy Liebman told New Times sixteen acres was "totally unacceptable" ("Museums to the Max," September 30), she faced a dilemma: The museums' plans were grouped in #8 with sixteen historic-preservation projects. Liebman couldn't attack the museums without jeopardizing those projects and her ties to the Dade Heritage Trust, Vizcaya, and other groups. So Delehanty, Thomas, and other #8 supporters had Liebman in a corner when she sat down for negotiations on Monday, October 4. The venue itself -- the home of historian Arva Parks and her husband Bob McCabe -- summed up Liebman's problem. Parks is one of Miami's best-known historic-preservation advocates, and McCabe is a UEL board member. Also present were MAM director Suzanne Delehanty, MAM board co-president Rose Ellen Meyerhoff Greene, science museum director Gillian Thomas, county cultural affairs director Michael Spring, Rich Heisenbottle and Becky Matkov of the Dade Heritage Trust, and Liebman, Bush, John de Leon, and Ernie Martin of the Urban Environment League.

The UEL contingent had come determined to extract a written agreement from the museum directors re-establishing the four-acre maximum. But Delehanty and Thomas were steadfast. "They just would not budge," Liebman says. Thomas was "eloquent" in making a case that the museums needed to be a certain size to be "credible." The UEL president also found architect Heisenbottle persuasive. "He said, öYou can have a footprint of four acres that doesn't look like four acres,'" Liebman recalls, adding that it was "a little scary" when Heisenbottle noted that the American Airlines Arena sits on four acres.

Instead of securing a limit on acreage, she settled for a nonbinding written agreement to establish a "steering committee" to "guide the planning and development of the project." The panel would include representatives from the museums, the UEL, neighborhood groups, and local government officials.

After much heated debate, the UEL board ratified the agreement on October 7. "I guess you have to have a little trust in mankind that they will keep their word," Liebman says. "The main goal is that it be a fabulous park that happens to have a couple of museums in it."

A small group of civic activists led by Steve Hagen and Luis Penelas formed an ad hoc organization called Save Bicentennial Park from Massive Museums. They waged a negligible media campaign, relying on a few newspaper ads, some talk-show appearances, and lots of e-mail messages. They were barely noticeable amid the million-dollar advertising blitz launched by Neighbors Building Better Communities.

At 9:30 p.m. on November 2, with 60 percent of precincts reporting, Suzanne Delehanty was already beaming and hugging a colleague at a science museum election party. "I just think it's an amazing thing that the public voted for this," she gushed later, without irony. "The Miami-Dade public thinks the cultural institutions are as important as water. And you need both to make a really great community!"

Hagen also found it amazing. On election day he interviewed about twenty voters who said they would not have voted for #8 had they known they were approving $275 million to put two new museums in Bicentennial Park. "Most of the black voters I spoke to voted for this thing because of the Head Start learning centers," he says. "It was a bait and switch."


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