OnePulse accused of breaching tourist tax development agreement with Orange County

According to the county, OnePulse rented out property on the purchased Pulse museum site without the county's permission

click to enlarge OnePulse accused of breaching tourist tax development agreement with Orange County
Photo by J.D. Casto
The OnePulse organization, a nonprofit formed after the 2016 fatal mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, received a default notice from the Orange County government Monday accusing the organization of violating its tourist development tax agreement.

OnePulse received a $10 million commitment in tourist tax development dollars from Orange County in 2018 to support the development of a museum that would commemorate the 49 victims of the shooting. OnePulse was bound by its agreement with the county to “diligently proceed with the design, construction and operation of the Museum in a financially responsible and commercially reasonable manner.”

But conceptual plans for the controversial museum project grew expensive and ultimately fell through.

After spending $3 million of those public tax dollars on “unrecoverable” design services and $3.5 million on a 1.7 acre parcel of land on W. Kaley Street for the museum, OnePulse scrapped its plan to build the controversial project last month.

At that time, the organization said it would forfeit the unused $3.5 million in TDT funds and the parcel of land to the county.

Former executive director Deborah Bowie said in an interview with WESH that the organization would return individual donations provided for the museum over the years, but quickly backtracked within 24 hours, explaining donations had already been used for their intended purpose. After heading the organization for over a year, Bowie unexpectedly resigned from the job last week.

In another blow to the organization's credibility with the public, a letter sent to OnePulse on Monday, signed by Orange County administrator Byron Brooke, accuses OnePulse of breaching its tourist development tax agreement by renting out property without prior county approval.

According to the letter, the organization entered into three unauthorized licensing agreements with an entertainment agency for the use of interior space, parking, and loading docks at the property purchased for the Pulse museum.

The agreement with the county, approved in October 2018, barred OnePulse from leasing, selling, and/or transferring that property for any purpose unrelated to the museum without first obtaining the county’s written consent.

The county, in its letter, asked for OnePulse to terminate its agreements with the Nassal Company, the agency OnePulse leased property to, and to evict the company from the property within 60 days of providing notice.

Yolanda Londoño, a board spokesperson for the OnePulse Foundation board, told WESH in a statement that this “latest development” is part of the process of terminating its agreement with Orange County.

“We maintain active communication with county staff and will continue to ensure everything is done correctly and in accordance with our agreement,” Londoño said.

The OnePulse foundation, founded by former club owner Barbara Poma, has faced greater scrutiny in recent months, amid calls from a group of Pulse survivors and family members of victims to shutter its operations and submit to a forensic audit.

The nonprofit was formed less than one month after the shooting, with the expressed intent of providing “immediate financial assistance” to affected victims and building a permanent memorial on the Pulse property to honor the 49 shooting victims, according to initial paperwork filed with the state.

The organization, which runs an annual “49 Legacy” scholarship program, has collected millions of dollars in donations since its formation, while some shooting survivors still face medical bills for the treatment of shooting-related injuries.

In recent years, the organization's focus has remained largely on fundraising for a permanent Pulse memorial and museum that, as of last month, is no longer in the works. An interim memorial currently stands at the former club's property south of downtown.

With millions of dollars in assets, and regular fundraising events throughout the year, OnePulse has also faced criticism for padding the pockets of its executives. A tax filing shows founder Barbara Poma alone collected $249,580 in reportable compensation from OnePulse in 2022, while four additional OnePulse executives collected incomes exceeding $100,000.

Poma, who was vacationing in Mexico the night of the shooting, resigned from her position as OnePulse executive director last summer. She left the nonprofit entirely in April.

Poma co-owned the Pulse property off South Orange Avenue with her husband, Rosario Poma, and businessman Mike Pannaggio until the city of Orlando purchased the land from the three owners last month for more than double its appraised value.

OnePulse's decision to scrap the museum project, separate from a planned memorial at the former club site, was announced shortly after.

What comes next, particularly in the wake of this latest cease and desist letter, is yet to be seen. The Orange County board of commissioners, for its part, is scheduled to discuss the scrapped Pulse museum project at their board meeting next Tuesday.

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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