Orange County officially terminates agreement with dissolved OnePulse organization

An assistant county attorney also confirmed that OnePulse had repaid the state for the nearly $400,000 it received through a state grant in 2019.

click to enlarge Orange County officially terminates agreement with dissolved OnePulse organization
Photo by J.D. Casto
With little discussion on the matter, the Orange County board of county commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to officially terminate their $10 million agreement with the OnePulse organization, after a county attorney informed the board that county staff had completed the necessary logistical steps to do so.

The nonprofit OnePulse was first founded in 2016 to erect a memorial for victims and survivors of the devastating mass shooting at Orlando's LGBTQ+ Pulse nightclub.

The mass shooting on June 12, 2016, forever seared into the memory of the local community members who here when that tragedy occurred, left 49 people dead and wounded dozens more.

The nonprofit, founded by former club owner Barbara Poma, officially dissolved itself and ceased normal operations on Dec. 31, 2023, after facing a string of controversies, including a failure to actually fulfill its original mission, while continuing to accept donations from the public to support it.

Over the years, the organization entered into contractual agreements with both Orange County and the state of Florida for financial assistance to support their work, receiving millions of taxpayer dollars collectively to go toward its National Pulse Museum and memorial projects.

The nonprofit entered into a $10 million agreement with Orange County in 2018, funded by tourist development tax (TDT) funds, and was awarded a $500,000 grant from the state a year later in 2019. A second state grant — worth $680,000 — was allocated for OnePulse in 2020.

Some of those funds have been repaid or returned, while much of that still has been determined unrecoverable. According to Orange County assistant attorney Whitney Evers, the state of Florida confirmed just last week that OnePulse had repaid the nearly $400,000 in public money that it had received from the state as part of that 2019 grant.  The remainder of that first allocation was left unspent.

The second appropriation of $680,000 awarded in 2020, however, was already fully spent by OnePulse — not on any sort of memorial work, according to a staffer with the state's Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, but on employee salaries.

In addition, the nonprofit also left Orange County taxpayers on the hook last month for paying its unpaid $51,000 property tax bill for a property at 438 W. Kaley St. that was intended as the site for a National Pulse Museum.

That 1.7-acre parcel of land, located near the former nightclub, was bought by OnePulse in 2019 using funds received from its agreement with the county.  Altogether, OnePulse spent $6.5 million from that contract — a total of $3.5 million on land acquisition and $3 million on design services. 

The organization’s memorial project was ostensibly intended to honor both the victims and survivors of the LGBTQ+ nightclub shooting, but it had also faced criticism from a group of survivors and community allies who worried it would serve only as a way for the organization to ultimately profit off their pain.

Last October, as the organization's financial situation became more dire, OnePulse informed the county that it would not be moving forward with the museum project after all, and requested a termination of their tourist development tax (TDT) agreement.

According to a default notice sent by the county a month later, it turns out OnePulse had violated terms of their agreement anyway by renting out part of the intended museum property without the county’s consent.

Evers told the board of Orange County commissioners on Tuesday that various county departments — including real estate management, the comptroller’s office, the county attorney’s office, risk management and more — have been working since December to clear the administrative hurdles required to finalize the termination of their TDT agreement with OnePulse.

Part of that process, according to Evers, has involved:

  • Developing a termination agreement

  • Performing an appraisal of the Kaley Street property (which will now be returned to the county)

  • Performing an environmental assessment of that property and other site inspections

Another subject of scrutiny has been the nonprofit’s finances. According to Evers, the county comptroller’s office finally received a flash drive from OnePulse earlier this month, on April 3, that contained copies of bank statements with canceled checks for all TDT funds received, and a year-end statement of activities and financial position as of 2023.

There was no discussion Tuesday on what the flash drive actually contained, but Evers assured the board, “I have not heard any issues with what was on the flash drive.”

None of the commissioners, nor Mayor Demings, further questioned the matter.

The next steps of cutting ties with OnePulse, according to Evers, involve a few legalese phases: an execution of the termination agreement; the approval, execution, and recording of the release of restrictive covenants; the acceptance and recording of a special warranty deed; a staff inspection and recommendation regarding what to do with the disposed property; and a determination from the board of county commissioners on the disposition of the property.

But not all of the responsibility for next steps lies solely on the county.

The city of Orlando, for its part, has taken over the project of building a Pulse memorial, following the nonprofit's dissolution.

The city bought the former nightclub property from its three owners (including OnePulse founder Barbara Poma) for $2 million last fall, with staff assuring the public that they’re working to solicit feedback from members of the community, as well as affected victims and survivors of the Pulse shooting on how to best proceed.

As the grassroots collective Pulse Families and Survivors for Justice has pointed out, however, some survivors don’t live here and never did, and say they have received little to no communication on the project updates.

That group, first formed in 2019, has openly criticized city leaders for their support of OnePulse and its founder Barbara Poma, who paid herself as the organization's leader to the tune of six figures, while some survivors say they struggled just to cover medical bills related to shooting injuries. 

Poma stepped down from her role as executive director of OnePulse in 2022 and left the organization entirely in 2023.

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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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