Criticism surges amid recommendation to put $100 million museum on rural site

ST.AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Critics from Central Florida continued blasting a task force’s decision to recommend a rural tract of land in St. Johns County as its preferred site for the proposed Florida Museum of Black History, with the chairwoman of the task force calling the result “political.”


The nine-member task force, with heavy representation from the St. Augustine and Jacksonville area, used the results of a ranking that was supposed to narrow the list of options from four to three to name their final pick Tuesday.

The vote was expected to come down to the St. Johns site and Eatonville, in Orange County. Thanks in part to a Jacksonville task force member’s 35-point difference in scoring, St. Johns entered the meeting as the leading candidate.

However, while task force members used categories that examined the history of each site and the infrastructure around it, none of the categories looked at the sustainability of the proposals.

Read: Black history museum task force member accused of ‘tanking’ score against Orange County

Eatonville offered a 10-acre property adjacent to I-4 at the edge of the town’s downtown strip. The proposal included an events venue and a hotel, and backers were in talks with leaders from the region’s major attractions on ticket deals that could’ve boosted attendance.

St. Johns settled on a 17-acre undeveloped property on State Road 214, miles from St. Augustine and I-95. The two-lane road doesn’t have an interstate exit and the land is surrounded by rural homesteads.

The location of the site, which was made known after the initial rankings came out, appeared to chill several of the task force members, who wondered why no one had bothered to ask about whether the property could host a self-sufficient museum.

Read: State panel recommends St. Johns County over Eatonville for site of Florida’s Black History Museum

“People are not going to go there,” Rep. Bruce Antone, the main backer of the Eatonville proposal, said. “What they were trying to do is get money to build a museum for the children that go down for field trips.”

St. Augustine draws approximately six million visitors per year, including third, fourth and fifth graders from Central Florida who visit in the spring to tour historical sites important to Black Americans such as Fort Mose.

Orange County, by contrast, draws more than 70 million, many who drive right past the Eatonville site on their way to the theme parks. Tourists also include Black fraternities who hold conventions in Orlando.

Read: Eatonville makes pitch to host Florida’s black history museum

St. Augustine has had a rocky record when it comes to hosting major museums. The World Golf Hall of Fame – located directly off I-95 -- closed in 2023 due to a lack of attendance. An analysis showed nine cents of every tax dollar poured into the museum was lost.

“The Florida Black History Museum [sic] Task Force made a political rather than a pragmatic decision,” Sen. Geraldine Thompson, the task force’s chairwoman, said. “I believe [legislators] will want to locate the museum on a site that has the greatest return on taxpayer dollars rather than a money pit that will necessitate continuous expenditures from Florida’s general revenue.”

St. Johns supporters dismissed the criticisms, repeatedly saying the history of the county made it the perfect location.

Read: Eatonville could soon be home to a state Black history museum

While they promised the rural museum would be sustainable, they did not offer specifics. A feasibility study will be conducted as part of the development process.

Eatonville’s supporters, including Antone and Eatonville Community Redevelopment Association leader Shan Rose, said they were working on plans to put a museum in Central Florida with or without the state’s blessing.

“When the odds are stacked against you, you have to still fight,” Rose said.

Read: New bill could derail plans for African American history museum in Eatonville

The possibilities included convincing lawmakers to overturn the task force’s recommendation, as Thompson indicated, as well as asking Orange County, other governments, nonprofits and private donors for funds for a museum.

In a statement, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings did not indicate his position on a county-funded project.

“If things don’t work out in St. Augustine, we’re still very interested in having the museum here in Orange County,” he said.

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