OnePulse hires new executive director; plans to buy Pulse site from owner

ORLANDO, Fla. — There is a new executive director of the onePulse Foundation. It follows six years of criticism about a conflict of interest involving Pulse owner Barbara Poma, who founded the nonprofit.

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Poma co-owns the Pulse nightclub and launched the nonprofit after the mass shooting there in 2016.

That has drawn questions from some survivors about whether she was using the position and property to profit off of their pain.

Investigative reporter Karla Ray sat down with Deborah Bowie, the new executive director, Tuesday to ask whether this really changes anything as Poma is still intimately involved in the organization.

9 Investigates learned that Poma still stands to profit off the plan to build a memorial at the Pulse site, because Bowie said Tuesday that the nonprofit is working to acquire the site through a sale expected this year.

Poma originally refused to sell the site to the city of Orlando in 2016 at a negotiated price of more than $2 million.

Read: onePULSE announces new executive director

By the 10 year mark of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the onePulse Foundation said a memorial, museum and a survivor’s walk will be constructed at South Orange Avenue and West Kaley Street near downtown Orlando.

After years of questions about Poma’s leadership as executive director, Bowie now has that title.

“Me coming on board as executive director, allows Barbara to move now into the role as really the keeper of the story -- the founder of the organization -- and to help us with the national fundraising effort,” Bowie said.

There’s a lot of money to be raised, including money needed to actually purchase the Pulse site from Poma and her co-owners.

Bowie said that could happen this year. It’s a move that falls in line with the type of involvement the nonprofit’s founder has been questioned on for years.

A group called the Community Coalition against a Pulse Museum said in a statement Tuesday, “Whether Poma is CEO or not, it does not change the nonprofit’s re-victimizing, exploitative model.”

Read: ‘I was shot four times’: Survivors share their stories on 6th anniversary of Pulse terror attack

Bowie acknowledged the critics, including some who showed up to the remembrance ceremony earlier this month to publicly rally against the plans for a memorial and museum, saying it profits off their pain.

“They are not a majority,” Bowie said. “They are a fraction of the community.”

Of the 2,200 people who participated in the survey that led to designs for the project, fewer than 10% were survivors, family members or first responders there the night of the attack. OnePulse officials have said that others were asked to participate but did not respond.

Read: 2022 onePULSE Legacy Scholarship honors Pulse Nightclub shooting victim

The pre-pandemic fundraising goal for the memorial and museum was $45 million, but with inflation, it’s expected to be much higher.

Bowie said the Design and Construction committee will meet in July to calculate updated estimates and lay out plans to make up for lost time.

The memorial and museum were originally supposed to open this year; the new goal is 2026.

Read: onePULSE Rainbow Run honors 49 victims of the Pulse tragedy

So far, onePulse has raised $23.6 million, including $10 million in tourism tax dollars given to the project by Orange County.

The $23.6 million is not all earmarked for the memorial and museum, but also supports scholarships in honor of those killed at Pulse.

9 Investigates asked if onePulse would request additional tax dollars to make up for the deficit caused by COVID-19 fundraising struggles.

“I think it’s a conversation that our board needs to have about where we are, what’s realistically out there,” Bowie said.

The Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum released the following statement Tuesday:

“We continue to oppose the onePulse Foundation’s memorial/museum. The nonprofit plans to build this without the consent of the 49 victims’ families and, in some cases, against their will. Who gave onePulse the authority to do this?

“OnePulse is about tourism; it’s about money. Barbara Poma sits on thevoard of Visit Orlando. Tourism executives sit on onePulse’s board, and Poma has personally been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars while victims continue to struggle financially. Whether Poma is CEO or not, it does not change the nonprofit’s re-victimizing, exploitative model. Lives were taken.

“OnePulse is about tourism; it’s about money. Barbara Poma sits on the board of Visit Orlando. Tourism executives sit on onePulse’s board. And Poma has personally been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars while victims continue to struggle financially. Whether Poma is CEO or not, it does not change the nonprofit’s re-victimizing, exploitative model.

“We support victims. We support a public memorial park designed to honor the 49, tell their stories, and present the facts of the nightclub, the shooting and its aftermath -- without ever charging an entry fee.”

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.