As city leaders debated the price, Barbara Poma decided not to sell Pulse to Orlando

Counting the costs

Outside Pulse, the memorial fence is still a gathering place.
Outside Pulse, the memorial fence is still a gathering place.

As the six-month anniversary of the Pulse massacre approaches, the owners of the gay nightclub have decided not to sell the site to the city of Orlando. City officials had been grappling with the purchase of the place where 49 people met their end and a community continues to grieve.

In a statement released on Monday, Pulse owner Barbara Poma says she can’t walk away from a space that means so much to her family and community.

“I feel a personal obligation to ensure that a permanent space at Pulse be created so that all generations to come will remember those affected by, and taken on, June 12,” she says. “I intend to create a space for everyone, a sanctuary of hope, and a welcoming area to remember all those affected by the tragedy.”

Poma adds that the memorial must be created together as a community.

“I hope the love and support we have seen through this time from around the world and here at home will continue as we join together to build a place to memorialize our angels,” she says.

Earlier in November, the city announced staff had worked out an agreement with the owners of Pulse to purchase the site on Orange Avenue for $2.25 million, the plan being to eventually create a memorial to the people killed in the mass shooting this past summer. But at the Orlando City Council meeting on Nov. 14, Mayor Buddy Dyer delayed a vote from Orlando commissioners on the purchase because of resistance from some on the council regarding the price. City records show the 4,500-square-foot building on a third-of-an-acre parcel had been independently appraised by the city before the tragedy and valued at $1.68 million. That’s about a $570,000 difference.

At an awkward meeting with Dyer last week at City Hall, Commissioner Tony Ortiz cited that difference as his only reason for opposing the purchase.

“I don’t have a problem with us getting the property,” he said in measured tones. “I never said that I was against that. I do have an ethical and moral problem, and many people have expressed the same, in terms of the price. Why is this guy trying to capitalize on this?”

The initial asking price from the club’s owners was closer to $4 million, which city staff had negotiated to lower considerably, Ortiz acknowledged.

“I definitely understand where you’re coming from,” Ortiz said. “But I can’t fathom the idea of allowing somebody to capitalize on this. Especially knowing the suffering and knowing the sacrifice of many of the families. If you give me a true reason why the price has to be like that, I’ll be more than glad to consider it – but there’s not.”

Dyer countered by saying the purchase of the site allows the city to control the memorial process so it isn’t outside the bounds of what ought to be done for the community. The city’s process would probably involve public input, while an outside entity might not have the same consideration.

“I don’t view it as a real estate transaction,” Dyer said. “I think we might have not kept commissioners in as much of the loop as we went through the process of negotiating the purchase of the [site] but I can tell you we got what we think is the best possible deal that we could.”

The terse discussion ended with Ortiz saying he couldn’t come to terms with the price and would have preferred to work with the community to raise funds for the purchase.

“Commissioner, in 10 years, the amount we paid for the land will be long forgotten,” Dyer responded. “The tragedy won’t be forgotten, but the price we paid will.”

Poma struggled for months with the decision to sell Pulse to the city, and finally over the Thanksgiving break, she decided she couldn’t.

“You couldn’t really put a price on it for me,” she says at a news conference. “Everyone has their opinion and their feelings, but for me it wasn’t about the real estate or the appraisal – it was about the emotion and what happened here. … It was a hard decision for me to make because I was going with my heart. That’s what Pulse has always been for me.”

Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the city’s first openly gay commissioner, was frustrated the deal had fallen through on Monday. She says Poma called her in the morning before the news was released to let her know first.

“I don’t want to speak for her by any means, but you know, she was very upset by some of the things that were said, and I don’t blame her because I thought they were mean,” Sheehan says. “I called them out at the time. I do not think she’s trying to profit from this. They had business losses. I did not think they were trying to take advantage of anybody.”

City commissioners have never had a problem paying above value for parts of the Amway Center, Sheehan says, so why they should have a problem with Pulse? The commissioner attributed the attitude to prejudice against LGBTQ people.

“All of the options that I presented to try to get this moving forward in a positive direction were hijacked by people saying unkind things and creating division instead of unity in our community,” Sheehan says. “I’m distressed by that. We were Orlando United. We showed the world how to work together, and then some small-minded thinking has managed to throw a wrench in this.”

After Dyer first pulled the item from the council meeting in November, Sheehan says people called and offered donations for the purchase of the club. The commissioner says she offered to start a fundraiser, but Dyer’s office told her not to worry about the money. Sheehan says Dyer also told her last week that he had enough votes on the council to push the purchase through in December.

But after the news broke that Pulse’s owners would not sell the club to the city, Dyer says in a statement that he understands the decision by the owners was “incredibly difficult.”

“We respect their decision and are hopeful the Pulse site will continue to be a place of hope and healing that honors the victims,” Dyer says. “We believe it is important for the community to have input into a memorial that honors the victims and pays tribute to the resiliency of Orlando.”

Dyer adds that city staff will continue to research and understand how other communities have approached the memorial process.

Online, community members are divided between who should own the property and control the memorial process. Some have defended Poma’s judgment, while others have called on the city to take the property through eminent domain.

Sheehan says she cautioned Poma that managing a memorial site can be a tremendous burden to take on as an individual, but she’s confident Poma will do the right thing.

“She’ll figure it out,” Sheehan says. “I’m not going to say anything bad about Barbara Poma because she’s a good person and she didn’t deserve the treatment by some of my colleagues that she got.”

Poma and her husband, Rosario Poma, opened the club in honor of her brother, John, who died of AIDS in 1991. The name “Pulse” is a reference to her brother’s heartbeat and the way he continued to inspire his family and friends. Poma says she isn’t sure yet about what the future of Pulse looks like, but they are going to start working on plans right away.

“All the families and the communities, the people who come to Orlando [and] the people who live here will still come to pay their respects and will come here to heal,” she says. “I intend for all of those people to have input and to help us develop this together, because it truly is their space. It’s not just mine now.”

“Our work starts today,” Rosario Poma adds.