by Naja and Arnaud Girard
Conspiracy theories are running wild over the City Commission’s decision to give control of the African-Caribbean Goombay Festival to a group dominated by white businessmen. “This decision was a slap in the face,” says Glenwood Lopez. He is Chairman of a group supported by eleven Bahama Village non-profit organizations that came together to reclaim the event.
“They took away the 6.6 acres and now it’s Goombay,” says David, a resident of Bahama Village.
One belief is that the decision was somehow usurped during the Commission meeting and that the vote was actually a tie. In fact, the ballot does show that Commissioner Billy Wardlow actually cast his vote for the “Bahama Village Coalition.” The only group referred to as a “Bahama Village coalition” during the July 1st Commission meeting was the group led by Mr. Glenwood Lopez.
“With Wardlow voting on our side,” said Mona Clark, a director of the Bahama Village Community Coalition, “the vote would have been a tie, three to three.” On Monday, the Coalition’s board will consider whether to put in a formal question to the Commission about the validity of the vote.
At this point the rumors of bubba-ism and racial prejudice are pretty much out of control and we’ve given up trying to sort them out.
Here is the short version of how we got where we are today:
The Goombay Festival was created about 30 years ago to celebrate Bahama Village’s African-Caribbean heritage. It was also perceived as the only foothold the black community had in Key West’s tourism economy.
By 1992, Goombay had become a source of considerable rivalry among different groups headed by strong characters with personality conflicts and cloak and dagger tactics.
Beginning in 1994, Ken Sullivan ran Goombay with the support of the Elks Lodge. But he lost control in 1998 to another association [the Bahama Village Business Association] when Veronica Stafford, with the support of Joseph Schroeder, part owner of The 801 Bar, began to run the festival. In 2003, Goombay went back to Sullivan with the support of Schroeder who, we are told, “switched over to Kenny’s side.”
But Sullivan and Schroeder had a falling out: In 2011, Sullivan allegedly demanded a larger share of the profit from Schroeder, a request that was not met favorably. As the story goes, Sullivan took to the stage during the festival and began bellowing anti-gay jokes [The 801 Bar is a world famous gay bar where Drag Queens can be seen nightly canvassing the sidewalk] along with some disparaging remarks about Schroeder.
Consequently in 2012 and 2013 Goombay again slipped out of Sullivan’s hands. During that time, it was sponsored by the Petronia St. Neighborhood Association [PSNA] with Joe Schroeder as the heavyweight. At the time, Rodney Gullatte, Jr., an African American from Atlanta, was working for the PSNA and was involved in organizing the festival. But we’re told it was Union Lodge 47 [The Masons] who were actually running Goombay, providing the manpower, and making sure all of the bills for services were properly paid [which was not always the case with Sullivan who officials claim still owes the City $2,500.]
And then we arrive at 2014. Many of the residents of Bahama Village complained about nudity during the 2013 festival, which had always been a family-oriented event. There were also complaints that the festival had turned to considerably less Afro-Caribbean culture and more toward Cuban food and Spanish music. In addition Bahama Village residents felt dispossessed.
In an unprecedented effort, 11 Bahama Village non-profits came together to reclaim Goombay. “This was the greatest thing. A great reason for pride,” says Veronica Stafford, “That we were able to get together, all these old enemies, to do something together.”
As the rumor goes, when realizing just how united the Village had become over the issue, white business owners in the Village felt it would be wrong to try to hang onto the management of Goombay. The neighborhood association [PSNA] decided not to apply for the festival license and more importantly, the Masons, who had been credited for the professional management of Goombay 2012 and 2013 jumped over and joined the Bahama Village coalition of non-profits.
In theory, everything should have gone well and good from that point on. It didn’t.
At the eleventh hour, a mysterious new group calling itself the “Bahama Village Goombay Festival, Inc.” put in an application to run the festival. It is headed by Rodney Gullatte, Jr. but pillared by some unexpected white business associates, among them, Big Coppitt resident Ricky Arnold, Jr. of Arnold’s Towing.
An interesting aspect is that obviously everyone understood that control of the festival should be returned to Bahama Village residents: The Neighborhood Association [PSNA] didn’t dare oppose the concept [at least not directly] and the Masons immediately offered their skill and management experience to the Coalition.
But the Commission voted down the efforts of the Village to reclaim their festival. Commissioner Lopez believes the Commission was blind-sided by the mishaps and friction of the past.
“The fact that bills had been left unpaid from 3 years ago,” says Commissioner Teri Johnston, “certainly had a impact on my vote.”
The “debt” however was only $ 2,500, a drop of water considering that at the same meeting, just minutes before, the Commission had freely extended well over $ 125,000 of free services to the millionaires running the Superboat Championship races. No one even questioned the deceitful practices used in the negotiations, involving bogus claims of competing bids by Sarasota and Clearwater to highjack the event or the outlandish and unsupported claims that the race brings the community $30 million dollars of business each year. See: http://thebluepaper.com/article/not-all-festivals-are-created-equal/
For some obscure reason the Commission failed to see that an historic moment was at hand, that the African American people of Bahama Village had made enormous efforts to get together and take control of their own heritage and destiny and that that was probably more important than trying to avoid a little bit of friction in terms of City services.
[Any friction would likely have been minimal anyway, since one of the major organizers of the event for the past two years, the Masons, were now on board with the Coalition to make sure everything would run smoothly.]
The Commission’s decision sends a message of mistrust of the African American community’s ability to manage a two-day festival celebrating its own identity and heritage. Sometimes one can take the wrong decision for all the right reasons.
In the end only Commissioners Mark Rossi and Clayton Lopez voted to take a small risk in favor of a beautiful idea.