ST. PETERSBURG — No developer has been picked and the plans are still on paper. But Terri Lipsey Scott can’t help but gush that a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida may be built downtown, perhaps near a new baseball stadium.
On a recent Friday, she welcomed a dozen tourists from Sarasota who were outside taking in murals, unaware they were on the doorstep of the Woodson Museum. She ushered them inside the one-room gallery, where art hangs on covered-up windows. She showed them what the grounds used to look like as the community center and management office of the Jordan Park housing complex.
“Our home is that of a public housing center,” said Lipsey Scott, the Woodson’s executive director since 2018. “And I continue to scream, we’re better than that.”
The museum one day could be. A new Woodson is envisioned in both of what are considered the two leading proposals to redevelop the Historic Gas Plant District, home to Tropicana Field and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Either would transform the Woodson from a museum in hand-me-down space to the first in Florida built expressly to display African American history, art and culture. It would serve as the heart of a generational, billion-dollar effort to redevelop a part of downtown once home to Black businesses and neighborhoods before it was torn down to make way for the Trop.
One of those plans, Lipsey Scott told the visitors last week excitedly, even has a rooftop gathering space.
“To think what may be on our horizon makes me that much prouder,” Lipsey Scott said.
A museum in name only
With all the development downtown and along the waterfront, where the tall, glassy museums celebrate the arts and crafts, the Woodson, honoring African Americans in St. Petersburg, operates in a retrofitted 4,000-square-foot space in a community left behind.
For the most part, the Woodson, which opened in 2006, is a museum in name only. It has no permanent collection on display, nor an endowment. Exhibits rotate through every few months. It makes money as event space, such as the election celebration for Welch, St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor.
That’s because priceless art needs humidity and sunlight controls and advanced security systems, which the museum lacks. Lipsey Scott rents three storage units for donated art and artifacts.
She has an agreement with every artist who presents at the Woodson: They must donate one piece to its permanent collection. That art is in storage, along with photographs and memorabilia donated by community members.
Like the Mahaffey Theater and Sunken Gardens, the Woodson is city-owned. In late 2019, then-Mayor Rick Kriseman launched the Deuces Rising initiative to revive what was once the bustling Black entertainment corridor on 22nd Street South. He pledged $1 million and gave 5.5 acres of land for the Woodson on the other side of the interstate.
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But the fundraising to build and operate a new museum would be left to Lipsey Scott. The goal: $27 million.
“We built a baseball stadium and didn’t even have a team with my taxpaying dollars and others’,” she said. “But the one time we present ourselves with the request for something that would reflect the culture and those things that we can embrace and tell a story, we’re told we need to fundraise.”
To date, the Woodson has raised $7.7 million, including a $3 million federal grant this month. The Woodson has also received local and state money. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, secured $500,000 for the museum in the 2022 Florida Budget and another $250,000 in 2018.
“There’s great Black history in St. Petersburg that needs to be told, and visitors and tourists and residents need to know the history and the culture of a people in St. Petersburg that have survived through the years and thrived in spite of great odds, in spite of obstacles,” said Rouson, who grew up around Jordan Park.
In February 2021, the City Council approved $800,000 total to advance design and construction, completing Kriseman’s $1 million commitment. Money was spent on architects and engineers for the 22nd Street South site, plus a consultant and a reception for donors. But most of it was intended to hire a professional fundraiser. Lipsey Scott said around $580,000 remains unspent two years later because fundraisers are expensive and come with restrictions.
Last summer, Welch launched a new effort to redevelop Tropicana Field with emphasis on racial equity. Welch declined an interview. According to a spokesperson, Welch didn’t intend for the proposal to include building a new museum.
But Lipsey Scott and proposers Sugar Hill Community Partners and the team that includes real estate investors Hines and the Rays saw an opportunity for the museum.
“I was ecstatic because I finally felt like I was getting a gift with batteries included,” she said.
A burden lifted
Four proposals to redevelop the Historic Gas Plant District came in. Sugar Hill and Hines/Rays mention the Woodson by name and plan for the museum’s development in its first phase. The proposal by local bidders Restoration Associates plans for an African American museum in its last of eight phases, and the proposal by Miami-based 50 Plus 1 Sports includes a museum or performing arts center.
Sugar Hill and the Rays are both listed as corporate sponsors on the Woodson’s website.
Sugar Hill’s plan would include a 24,000-square-foot space with a 14,400-square-foot future expansion pad. It would locate the Woodson next to a park preserving graves on the site, tucked between Interstate 275 and the 16th Street Corridor, putting it closer to the Deuces district. The group also pledges $1 million toward the museum’s capital campaign contingent on being selected to do the redevelopment.
Plus, Sugar Hill would manage development of the museum for free, said David Carlock, the group’s development manager.
“What we’re trying to do is take all that off their plate so they are as likely as possible to be successful,” he said.
The Hines/Rays plan places the Woodson at the “entryway” to the site, right off Booker Creek. Their plan calls for a 30,000-square-foot indoor and outdoor facility with a rooftop gathering space, a dedicated gallery to integrate existing Negro league baseball museum exhibits and a $10 million donation.
Back when the Rays were entertaining a “sister cities” proposal to split home games with Montreal, Rays co-president Brian Auld said he suggested to Lipsey Scott that Al Lang Field could be the site of the new Woodson, next to the Dalí Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
When the team decided to respond to the city’s bid request last year, Auld said he thought a site near a new stadium could be a perfect location for the Woodson. He imagined that partnerships and bringing events to a museum adjacent to a ballpark would drive a lot of traffic, and that the Rays would likely be the single largest donor to the Woodson.
“We thought that including the Woodson as part of that process would be a boon to the city, to the project and to specifically the African American community,” he said.
With a prime location, plenty of space and the heavy burden of fundraising lifted, Lipsey Scott is ready to leave the 22nd Street South site behind. The Rays and Sugar Hill have said the Deuces site could be used instead for affordable housing.
As for the Woodson’s current home, Lipsey Scott would love to see the last original vestige of Jordan Park turned into an exhibit space for locals and children.
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