Not the time for King honor
The $60,000 cost didn't sit well with commissioners considering the city's budget.
By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2007
LARGO - The beleaguered plan to honor Martin Luther King Jr. is once again on the back burner.
Largo city commissioners Tuesday night unanimously chose to yank funding for the memorial.
Instead, they will earmark a quarter of the amount they once planned to spend as seed money to possibly honor King in the future.
"I definitely think we need to move on as far as the issue of recognizing Martin Luther King Jr., but unfortunately I don't think this is the time," Commissioner Gay Gentry said after other commissioners opposed spending $60,000 on the project. "We have hemmed and hawed about this since at least 2003 when I came on the commission."
Two months ago, commissioners had decided to move forward with a 700-square-foot plaza at Largo Central Park to honor King.
But Tuesday, several commissioners balked at the price tag during general discussions about the city's $133-million budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year. Commissioners approved a tentative budget and a property tax rate of $3.65 per $1,000 of taxable home value. Mayor Pat Gerard was not present.
During Tuesday night's discussion, Commissioner Andy Guyette initially said the $60,000 intended for the memorial should pay for sidewalks instead.
Then Gentry and other commissioners pointed out that the city already had a well-funded sidewalk construction program. In the upcoming budget, $300,000 is allocated for new sidewalks, officials said.
Next, a couple of commissioners said they had concerns that a project planned at Datsko Park was pulled so the memorial could be built. That wasn't true, their staff told them.
Vying to keep the project alive, Commissioner Rodney Woods pleaded with his colleagues to allot at least $15,000 as seed money for a future project. Maybe with community support, additional funds could be raised, he said.
"When the time is right and when the spirit is right, Largo will again address this," said Woods, who served on the city's Martin Luther King Jr. memorial committee before he was elected.
Guyette agreed to Woods' suggestion.
Commissioner Mary Gray Black said she supported an idea suggested by a resident that called for a section or room at the Largo Library to honor King. She said that King would not have wanted a memorial.
Gentry later said she would not presume what King would want.
"If we truly wanted to honor Dr. King and to rise above all the issues that have plagued us in this community that originally brought about the Martin Luther King memorial, there would be not so much worry about the concrete and physical memorials to Dr. King, but thinking in terms of more emotional and civic responsibilities," Gentry said.
She said there had been too much animosity in the past and present and that anything built now would be flawed.
In 2003, fraught by racism within city departments and an uneasy history of racial relations, the city appointed a committee to decide the best way to honor King. The committee presented a plan for a memorial plaza in October of that year.
J.B. Butler, a member of the memorial committee, said he was disappointed by the commission's latest decision because the city had previously appeared to be moving forward with the memorial.
But he called the commission's choice a "postponement" rather than a "cancellation."
In recent months, a few residents said at city meetings that they opposed spending money on the memorial. Among them was commission candidate Curtis Holmes, who also said the money should go toward sidewalks, something he claimed the city spent only $50,000 on.
Last month, Guyette told other commissioners many residents were against the memorial. A few residents had written City Hall to oppose the plan.
At that time, Woods said he felt that some of the opposition to memorial was motivated by racism.
Soon after, more residents wrote the city. Most of the 20-plus e-mails opposed the memorial. Many mentioned sidewalks. Some had angry words for Woods.
"I resent the fact that Mr. Woods is using the racist comment as a crutch to get what he wants," one resident wrote. "It is very low, and an obvious act of a desperate man."
Woods said he doesn't think everyone who opposed the project was motivated by racism. He now wishes he approached people individually about his feelings.
After the meeting, Woods said he's still encouraged that a memorial will be built someday.
"It's a small setback in the big scheme of things," he said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or 445-4155.
Largo's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
2003: In response to an uneasy history of racial relations, the city appoints a committee to decide the best way to honor King. The committee presents a plan in October of that year.
October 2003 to January 2007: The plan languishes, primarily because its tied to other projects.
Jan. 23: Commissioner Rodney Woods convinces other city commissioners to make the memorial a separate project.
April 24: City leaders appear to abandon the plan for a stand-alone King memorial. They opt instead for a 4,500-square-foot memorial to honor King and other great Americans.
July 10: Commissioners decide on a 700-square-foot plaza to honor just King.
Aug. 21: Commissioner Andy Guyette tells other city leaders many residents oppose the plan.
Tuesday night : Commissioners pull funding for the project and earmark $15,000 for a possible future memorial.