Ohr-O'Keefe Museum funding stirs debate before Biloxi council - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Ohr-O'Keefe Museum funding stirs debate before Biloxi council

By Steve Phillips – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - A funding request from the Ohr-O'Keefe museum prompted some strong words at Tuesday's Biloxi city council meeting.

As we reported Monday, council member Ed Gemmill introduced a resolution that the city give the museum $360,000. That's money that would have been paid for monthly operating expenses, which the city stopped when Hurricane Katrina hit.

The museum's namesake, Jerry O'Keefe, was among those who spoke in favor of the funding request. He wanted a vote and commitment from the council today.

But there are also opponents: One citizen called the project "a black hole" and spoke strongly against giving any more money; especially in these tight budget times.

"We have the fantastic art of George Ohr and a beautiful facility to put it in. But we were damaged by Katrina. And so we need your help," museum board member Liz Joachim told the city council.

Museum supporters say the city's financial help is needed now more than ever, with most of the museum campus set for a grand opening this November.

Jerry O'Keefe, who personally donated $2 million to the project, said the Frank Gehry-designed project will be the highlight of a museum district in East Biloxi.

"It's a critical part of the redevelopment and renewal of this city.  It's going to bring us international attention and it will be a tremendous boost for the City of Biloxi and the whole area," said O'Keefe.

Ohr-O'Keefe backers who spoke to the council outnumbered opponents more than two to one. Still, there is some vocal opposition.

"Y'all do not need to vote for this, especially today. This needs to be studied. Let the citizens of Biloxi speak to you first and see if they even want this. This is just ridiculous," said Mary Rose Lehey, who frequently speaks out at Biloxi council meetings.

"Everybody in here probably supports this thing. But I can tell you one thing, the people on the street are not that enthused about that clay pot museum. They don't like the looks of it and especially they don't like their taxpayers money spent on it," added Bill Broadus, who lives in the Woolmarket area of Biloxi.

Following an executive session, Councilman Gemmill tried to convince his colleagues to support the funding. Instead, they voted to table it for now, saying the money just isn't there.

"Because we absolutely do not have the money to do this with. We've got to find some way we can work it out. We're dedicated to finding a way, but the money is just absolutely not there," said Councilman Tom Wall.

The council did agree to discuss the funding request at a workshop in mid-March.

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