Allowing GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico to close could have far-reaching financial impacts on the city for years to come, museum board member Richard Weavil warned members of the Mobile City Council Tuesday.
Citing an analysis from attorney Preston Holt, Weavil told councilors that allowing the museum to “go dark” would force the city to pay back a significant portion of a $27 million federal grant used for building construction. He also warned defaulting on the grant’s obligations could also jeopardize grant funding for the revitalization of Broad Street and funding for the proposed bridge over the Mobile River.
Weavil and other board members spoke at Tuesday’s meeting to ask the council to reconsider a roughly $500,000 cut to GulfQuest in the 2019 budget passed at the end of last month.
Councilors defended the move by referring GulfQuest board members back to the initial agreement between the museum and the city, where the board promised to pay for employees and other operating expenses inside the city-owned building.
For the past two years, Mayor Sandy Stimpson has budgeted funding for about half of the museum’s staff, or about nine employees. The council cut that funding this year.
Councilwoman Bess Rich said payroll for the employees, janitorial services and other operations were the responsibility of the museum. She asked the council, board and mayor’s office to get together to renegotiate the agreement.
While councilors seemed willing to work with Stimpson on a budget amendment, they noted it would have to be generated from his office, per the Zoghby Act. Council Vice President Levon Manzie requested City Clerk Lisa Carroll-Lambert write a letter asking Stimpson to bring an amendment forward to address GulfQuest funding.
Councilman Joel Daves accused his colleagues of creating the funding issue at the museum by cutting its budget in half. He said it should not be up to Stimpson alone to fix it.
The strongest rebuke of this plan came from Councilman Fred Richardson, who criticized the racial makeup of the board and where the museum’s employees live. Of the board members who spoke to the council, only former U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown is African-American.
“I’ve told this board more than once I’m not going to keep giving taxpayer money to the board when 54 percent of the people of the city are African-American,” Richardson said. “When you look at the board, it does not reflect the city. The one African-American member lives in Spanish Fort and you have employees who live in Baldwin County … .”
Richardson said before he could support a budget amendment to restore the museum’s full funding, it would have to increase its minority participation.
Other councilors acknowledged the communication breakdown between the council and the administration, which led to a number of unintended financial consequences.
Councilman C.J. Small said the cuts were made only after communication with Stimpson failed.
“In defense of a majority of my colleagues, we asked the mayor’s office for funding suggestions before making cuts,” Small said. “A lot of my colleagues didn’t get a response.”
Both Manzie and Councilman John Williams seemed hopeful for the future of GulfQuest and a possible resolution to the funding issue.
Mobile Housing Board agreement
The Mobile City Council unanimously passed an agreement with the Mobile Housing Board (MHB) to help the authority with planning and capital in order to get more apartments online. The board will pay the city a total of $198,000 annually in equal monthly installments, according to the agreement. In return, Senior Director of Community Housing and Development Jamie Roberts will help the board develop a master plan and direct capital funds of between $2 million and $3 million to the authority to help make more units move-in ready.
The city would also direct developers interested in working on public housing projects toward housing board properties. The agreement is good for a year and can be re-evaluated by both MHB and the council at that point.
MHB is currently without its top four leadership positions, including an executive director. Former Executive Director Akinola Popoola was fired by the board late last month. MHB attorney Raymond Bell said the agreement would take some of the scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) off the board. MHB is no longer considered troubled by the agency, but it is still in a two-year period of review related to the designation, HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan wrote in an email.
Councilors spent a good portion of a pre-conference meeting Tuesday debating the merits of the agreement. Councilors with MHB property in their districts had concerns, but ultimately decided the agreement would be better than allowing HUD to take over the board.
Manzie said his main concern with the agreement is the movement westward of public housing residents indigenous to the midtown area.
“I’m concerned,” he said. “I’m going to be watching for anything of this nature that furthers the case for displacement and gentrification.”
Small said he shared Manzie’s concerns.
In the case of competitive tax credits through the Alabama Housing Finance Authority, which many private developers use to build public housing in the state, more points toward the grants are given to developers proposing to place public housing in traditionally higher-income areas rather than in areas that are traditionally considered low-income neighborhoods.
Richardson said his concerns over the agreement stem from its duration. He believes it shouldn’t take a year for MHB to replenish its leadership. He was in favor of a six-month agreement.
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