Orlando buys Pulse nightclub property for memorial to massacre victims

Orlando City Commissioners Monday signed off on the $2 million purchase of Pulse nightclub, the site of one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings that rocked the city and its LGBTQ community in 2016.

The vote came after hours of public comment from survivors and family members of victims of the attack, who were divided on whether the sale to the city was the best path forward. The unanimous vote moves the sale forward, which is expected to close on Friday, formally transferring the plot along Orange Avenue to the city.

Mayra Alvear, who lost a daughter in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, holds up a poster of the 49 victims while delivering remarks to the Orlando City Council, Monday, October 23, 2023, regarding the city’s plan to purchase the Pulse nightclub property. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the sale sets the stage for the city to develop a process “inclusive to the families of the victims and inclusive of the survivors” to build a permanent memorial at the site of a shooting rampage, which killed 49 and wounded 53 on June 12, 2016. However, he said the city hasn’t figured out yet how it will proceed in doing so.

“In talking to Oklahoma City and New York, I know that the most important thing is transparency so that people know what we’re going to do. We’re going to be very careful about that,” he said.  “I know this is not going to be an easy process, but we’re going to be very careful that we do everything we can to make sure that if people disagree with what the final result is… they know how we arrived at that result.”

Plans to purchase the property came together quickly over the span of a few weeks, and were revealed in an interview last week with the Orlando Sentinel. The purchase price of $2 million – to be paid to Barbara and Rosario Poma, and Michael Panaggio, who collectively own the former nightclub – also fueled debate.

An appraisal determined the land was valued somewhere between $1.85 and $1.96 million, records show, though city commissioner Jim Gray, who works in commercial real estate, was skeptical.

He suspected the land was worth far lower because of its connection to the tragedy, and suggested the city seek to acquire the property through eminent domain – a legal process allowing government to take private property if it’s for public use. In such a process, the owners would receive what the courts determine to be fair-market value.

“I would bet you $1 it will be a lot less than $2 million,” he said.

Sicilaly Santiago-Leon, who lost a cousin in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, talks to former state representative Carlos Guillermo Smith after she delivered emotional remarks to the Orlando City Council, Monday, October 23, 2023, regarding the city’s plan to purchase the Pulse nightclub property. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Ultimately, commissioners moved ahead with the sale, which they thought was the best choice to advance the seven-plus year saga, and ultimately build a memorial.

“Do I want to pay them $2 million? No,” Dyer said.  “I’m looking at this [as] what is best for our community.”

Questions remain as to what a memorial looks like and when it happens. Last week, Dyer said he’d lay out a timeline shortly, and city officials said they intend to include families and survivors in the process.

Mayra Alvear, whose daughter Amanda was killed in the attack, pleaded with the city council to sign off on the sale and to construct a memorial to the victims there.

Alvear wrote a letter to Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings on behalf of more than two dozen Pulse families in August asking for them to intervene in the dispute to ensure the memorial is built.

“For me specifically, it’s a place that keeps me close to my baby,” she said. “I beg you, we need our sacred ground protected.”

Maritza Gomez, who survived the shooting, contends there were code enforcement violations at the club, and says the city should do further investigation before tearing down the former nightclub. Like many who spoke Monday, she took issue with paying the owners.

“I want an investigation into Pulse before you tear it down,” Gomez said. “Barbara Poma and her family do not need no $2 million. They’ve pocketed enough.”

Sandra Wade, the mother of Edward Sotomayor Jr. who was killed at Pulse, said she wants the city to purchase the property because she sees it as the only way to build a memorial to keep her son’s memory alive.

“Eddie always went to Pulse to dance and have fun with his friends, and we must keep that memory alive,” she said.  “I feel the only way to do that at this time is to let the city of Orlando to acquire the Pulse site and build our memorial.”

Numerous victims spoke of distrust of all involved with the memorial process, which has been mired in controversy for years.

Friends and family members of the Pulse mass shooting victims watch community activist Lawana Gelzer question the Orlando City Council, Monday, October 23, 2023, regarding the city’s plan to purchase the Pulse nightclub property. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

The nonprofit onePulse Foundation was founded by Barbara Poma to lead efforts to build a memorial at the site. The foundation has faced criticism over the years, ranging from high salaries for its leadership to not completing a memorial. Barbara Poma stepped down as executive director in 2021 and left the organization entirely earlier this year.

The foundation also had plans to build a museum nearby, and said recently those have shifted to construct a smaller-scale remembrance at a warehouse it owns near the site. In 2019, it announced the museum plan, as well as memorial including 49 trees encircling the club, a reflecting pool and a nearby museum.

Earlier this year, onePulse announced plans to scale it back in part due to high costs estimates.

A “Survivor’s Walk” remains under construction linking the club with nearby Orlando Regional Medical Center where victims were treated.

City commissioner Patty Sheehan, Central Florida’s first openly gay elected official, in tearful remarks pleaded with families and survivors to give the city a chance to complete the job.

“I’m asking you and I’m begging you please to trust us,” she said. “I know you were excluded, I was excluded, I know how that feels. … We will do the right thing by everyone.”

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