MIAMI — The city of Miami plans to cut all funding to the organization that currently runs the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park.
The reduction from more than $1 million to zero in the 2009-10 fiscal year will effectively eliminate all positions at the park and halt all planned construction there, supporters of the park say. The property, a 1,000-acre barrier island established in 1945 as the only public beach and recreation facility for the "exclusive use of Negroes" during segregation, will be managed by Miami's Parks and Recreation Department strictly as a park, according to Virginia Key Beach Trust Chair Gene Tinnie. Only basic services will be provided.
The Trust runs the park; the city provides the funding.
"Plans to build the museum would cease, even though it's in progress right now," Tinnie said. "As far as the attractions including the carousel and mini train, we're not sure what would happen in terms of its operation."
The beach, once called Bears Cut, was frequented in the early 1900s by black settlers arriving on the island by ferry from a dock at the end of Fifth Street in downtown Miami.
Tinnie said the cuts are "being proposed" and that "we are not rolling over and accepting this."
The reality, Tinnie said, is that the city has less money and "something somewhere has to be reduced. Every department and every person has a legitimate claim as to why it should not be them. Our [the trust] position is that yes, cuts need to be made, but what's to gain by cutting the funding to zero?"
At a city commission meeting scheduled for Sept. 10, the Trust budget and its millage rates were to be discussed, according to Trust board member Sue Germain.
"The budget was given to the mayor just a few days ago, and in it, our funding is zero. Yet also on the table is a discussion to provide $3 million to Bay Front Park," she said.
The city of Miami, Germain said, will only provide the beach with police, fire and sewage services.
The park has a storied history.
In 1945, blacks waded into the water at Miami's all-white beaches to demand that what was then Dade County government make a public beach available for them.
A wade-in at Haulover Beach, led by attorney Lawson E. Thomas, persuaded Dade County officials to establish Virginia Key Beach, which was the first Colored Only beach in Miami.
All of Miami's public beaches became integrated in the '60s.
Virginia Key Park remained open until 1982, when it was transferred to the city of Miami.
Many reasons surrounded the park's closing, from insufficient funding and upkeep by the city, to the integration of all public beaches. Some people have cited underlying racial tensions for the closing.
Virginia Key Park reopened last year as both a park and museum, and sought to bring back some of the features it offered in 1945.
The proposed cuts are a blow to efforts to recognize the park's history, supporters say.
"They closed us in 1982 because of high maintenance," Germain said, "and they want to do it again. They probably want to sell it to a developer and we just don't know it. That's what started back in 1999 causing advocates like Gene Tinnie and [the late] Athalie Range to get involved."
In another city commission meeting scheduled for Sept. 24, the Trust's budgetwill come to a vote. At that time, Germain said, "if we don't get funded, everything we are doing will stop in about 20 days."
The Trust's own proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, according to its marketing and media director, David S. Friedman, has been pared down from $1.6 million to $1.125 million.
"That's bare-bones with no breathing space," he said.
Three staff positions were also eliminated in the Trust's proposal.
"To reduce it to zero," Friedman explained, "would eradicate the entire staff as well as educational programs, the summer camp, tours; the park would be bare."
Friedman said that after investing in the park's restoration, "They [the city] are going backwards. We are building this area as prime eco-tour for those who visit south Dade, and it's really catching on."
The Trust has a commitment of $25 million from the county earmarked for the museum's construction, according to Friedman.
But, Tinnie said, for the funds to go from the county to the city, the city has to agree to maintain the museum once it's built.
"They have been reluctant to do that, reasoning that they don't have the money.
But they could support the project if they really wanted to," Tinnie said.
Individual contributions are up to $250,000, Tinnie said, "and that's not a lot, but says there are people out there who care enough to contribute to something we consider our own."
Zero funding is not an acceptable option, he said.
"But if ignorance prevails, and they did that, the trust would still exist as an entity; there would just be no funding for staff."
Tinnie continued: "If cuts are made, it should be done intelligently. Use a scalpel, not a hatchet. And more importantly, the community would have to step up and say that they won't allow it."
Another problem, Tinnie said, is that there are already revenue-generating events booked.
"If you say you don't have the money, no one will be in place to manage them.
This does not make sense. Why cancel something that brings in money, if your argument is that you don't have any?" he asked.
Even if the Trust has to cut to the bare bones, Tinnie said, "at least keep enough funding in place so that we invest in one of the most valuable properties the city has in terms of generating tourism."
Speaking of the need to preserve the property as a historic park, Tinnie said, "It's our legacy to future generations. A decision has to be made."
The Virginia Key beach area is the largest urban area in the city of Miami, Friedman said, and is the only shoreline in the city that has a beachfront.
"No one wants to visit a park with historical buildings with no explanation or tours. If they tried to close us in the '80s, anything is possible," he said.
Photo: Virginia Key Beach