Eatonville group requests $87M in tourism tax funding for ZORA! Campus on Hungerford site

·4 min read

It is still unclear how a land battle between the residents of Eatonville and the Orange County school board will end, but the first “aspirational” plan for the future of the 100 acres of undeveloped land in the small Black town was made public this week.

A five-page proposal requesting more than $87 million in tourism tax dollars to build the future Zora Neale Hurston Campus for the Arts, the Humanities, and the Sciences was included among more than 50 applications seeking funding from money collected through a 6% tax added to the cost of hotel rooms.

The applications ranged from a $600 request from the Florida Songwriters Association for “annual music events” to $975 million to Orlando City Baseball Dreamers LLC for a stadium to lure a baseball team to the area and $800 million to Florida Citrus Sports to put a roof over Camping World Stadium.

N.Y. Nathiri, the founder of the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, submitted her application within weeks of a Winter Park developer canceling a sale agreement with landowner Orange County Public Schools that would have brought retail and housing that was too expensive for most of the town’s residents and would have made her dream of a museum campus impossible.

“Currently, the Zora Neale Hurston Campus for the Arts, the Humanities, and the Sciences (ZORA! Campus) is ‘An Aspiration,’ more than a possibility since the land, once seemingly destined for other development, is now available for consideration,” Nathiri wrote in her application. “Based on an earlier economic impact study, we know we only need 23 acres of the 100 existing acres for
our plan.”

The land once housed the historic Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, a private boarding school built for Black children when schools were still legally segregated. OCPS took ownership of the school in the early 1950s, paying far less than the appraised value after a segregationist state Supreme Court justice approved the sale amid opposition.

Even before the sale was canceled, residents in Eatonville, including Nathiri, asked OCPS to consider donating the land and placing it into a trust so the town could decide its future alone. The hope, they said, was that this could correct the harm the sale caused more than 70 years ago.

So far, OCPS school board members have given no indication that they will consider putting the land into a trust but, in a statement after the sale was canceled, the school board said the sale cancelation provided a new opportunity to “collaborate with the Eatonville community to preserve and celebrate the Town’s historic and cultural significance.”

OCPS stood to make $10 million from the sale.

Nathiri acknowledged that what happens to the land will decide the fate of her proposed project.

“We can’t build a campus without access to that land,” she said. “I have to call a spade, a spade because there’s no place in Eatonville that can accommodate 23 acres with this sort of thing.”

The ZORA! Campus would include a new museum complex dedicated to famed writer and Eatonville native Zora Neale Hurston and an upgraded Excellence Without Excuses computer lab to replace the current one on Kennedy Boulevard.

It would also include a STEM Center for science, technology, engineering and math and a conference center that can accommodate meetings up to 1,000 people.

Nathiri said the complex would be a boon for “cultural heritage tourism” in the historic town. If approved, the funding would be paid out over the span of 10 years.

Eatonville Mayor Angie Gardner said she didn’t learn that the project had been submitted for consideration until after the proposals had been made public but she has long known of Nathiri’s desire to see a museum complex built in the historic town.

Though OCPS has agreed not to sell the land to another developer for now, nothing is stopping the school board from attempting another sale in the future. Gardner said she, too, would love to see a museum complex in Eatonville but her priority is the land.

“We always have to go back to securing the land first,” she said.

Still, she said she is encouraged by residents thinking about what the land could mean to the town and its legacy, adding that the town deserves more tourism dollars.

“Our request for Tourism Development Tax dollars is way past due. We’re worth every penny,” she said. “Every cent that we get for a project that’s going to be worthy and will contribute to the sustainability or this town, I applaud and I support as long as it works for the town for generations to come.”

dstennett@orlandosentinel.com