A recent report released by Miami City Manager Carlos Migoya states that the city will have a $100 million deficit in the next fiscal year due to sinking property values and escalating union pensions.
Community organizations and trusts that depend on city funding are currently working to prepare themselves to operate using “bare-bone tactics.”
Such is the case for the Virginia Key Beach Trust (VKBT), an organization that received $1.2 million in funding from the city during the 2008-2009 budget year, but took a major hit last year when its operating budget was cut to zero.
Gene Tinnie, chairman of the VKBT board of trustees, told the South Florida Times that the organization’s “frugality” in previous years has allowed it to utilize carryover funds to become more self-sufficient in light of the anticipated budget shortfall.
“We are aware that this is a long-term problem that will go well past next year, so we are prepared, and are preparing with our limited staff for that eventuality,” Tinnie said. “Our emphasis in the rest of this fiscal year will be on fundraising at many levels, as well as on events and improvements at the Park.”
Tinnie told the South Florida Times that he is asking for community support to help the park – historically the only beach in Miami that allowed black people during segregation – as organizers continue to push forward with family-oriented activities.
Tinnie urged residents to mark their calendar for Sunday, June 20, for the 15th Annual Sunrise Ancestral Remembrance of the Middle Passage Ceremony, beginning around 5:30 a. m. at the park.
“This is done annually on the Sunday closest to the summer solstice, and in recent years, has come to be linked to the growing observance of Juneteenth,’’ Tinnie said, referring to the annual commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. “That particular Sunday is also Father’s Day, so we encourage the community to share in this day.”
The park has a storied history.
In 1945, black people 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 in 2008 as both a park and museum, and sought to bring back some of the features it offered in 1945, before the city’s funding cuts last year.
Despite the cuts, however, Trust organizers are continuing with their plans.
Tinnie said park improvements that were slated for Virginia Key, especially those that derived from community requests, will continue by any means necessary.
“A lack of funding does not change the mission of the Trust or our commitment to fulfilling the dream to which Mrs. Range devoted her last years—we press on regardless,” Tinnie said, referring to the late M. Athalie Range, the former chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Project, which was created to preserve the park.
“With one of our main goals in the current year is to complete and install an outdoor museum component, which will provide both historical and environmental information,” Tinnie said. “We also envisage completing some of the necessary infrastructure improvements, such as burying the electric lines, and supplying water to some of the outlying locations.”
He continued: “While the newly constructed museum structure has been on hold due to several factors, the greater vision of the entire park as a museum is proceeding at an accelerated rate. The outdoor museum signage and display components, which will transform the park into a truly interpretive historical and environmental landmark, are being refined and designed as we speak—with a goal of fabrication and installation of most of them in the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30.”
In an effort to keep the spirit of Virginia Key Beach alive in the community, the VKBT last month held a Fun in the Sun Youth Fest in an effort to unite families for a fun-filled day under the sun. The event was also designed to encourage healthy, outdoor activities for youth.
The park came alive with tents, a computer game area for Madden and Wii players, an animal petting section, healthy cooking demonstrations, park tours and live entertainment by local artists such as young rapper Lil Bass.
Michelle Watkins, who attended the May 1 function with her two children, told the South Florida Times that these are the kinds of events that the community should support, and shows why Virginia Key Beach is so essential.
“It was a nice family outing for all ages. This is what Virginia Key Beach represents in my opinion—a positive atmosphere for people to come together and celebrate heritage and family,” Watkins said. “As it was once considered a ‘colored beach,’ this location is a historical representation of how far we’ve come as a city and as a people. I just hope city of Miami residents continue to patronize it and encourage City and County officials to provide funding.”
VKBT members acknowledged that although the event had a nice community response, attendance was not as high as they would have liked, which they attribute to the organization’s reduction in spending power.
“The Fun in the Sun Youth Fest was sponsored by funds from the VKBT and The Children’s Trust, along with other sponsors and revenues collected at the beach park,” said VKBT Director of Operations Guy Forchion. “The event was a success being that we were able to plan an event with limited resources. Unfortunately, the community support was lower than last year.”
According to Forchion, not only were the resources limited, but the ability to utilize paid staff to work the event was at a minimum as well. Daily operating costs, including office maintenance and management, is conducted by staff from the VKBT and city of Miami Parks and Recreation department—who are also responsible for operating the concession stands, carousel and mini-train rides on weekends and private parties.
“The Trust currently has two full-time and six part-time employees. Four of the employees are executive staff and four are operations staff,” Forchion added.
The VKBT will continue to seek outside donations and investments to assist in future developments and events.
As strategies and opportunities for the organization are still in the planning stages, Tinnie urges the community to continue patronizing the park and participate in future events.
“We need to recapture the energy and enthusiasm that the community had when the struggle to save the park began and it was officially reopened,” Tinnie said. “It is important to remember that this park is the property of the citizens and as owners, we all need to do our part to ensure that its historical, environmental, cultural and recreational value is not lost. This is our legacy to our younger and next generations.”
For more information about the June 20 event or ways to contribute or volunteer to raise funds for Virginia Key Beach, please call 305-960-4600 or visit the website, www.virginiakeybeachpark.net.
Photo: Gene Tinnie