Gow Fields Will Lead Push for a History and Culture Center

Former Mayor Gow Fields will lead a drive to place a Lakeland History and Culture Center inside the main library on Lake Morton.

City commissioners today endorsed a recommendation to form a committee led by Fields that will:

  • Seek at least $150,000 in private funds and donations.
  • Work with the library staff to solidify plans for the history and culture center.

The recommendation came from an advisory committee chaired by former Commissioner Don Selvage that has explored the idea for about a year.

Fields said today he’s getting involved because a history and cultural center “gives us a chance to tell a complete story. We’ve done a good job in the community of living and functioning in our respective silos and this is an effort to build much-needed bridges of awareness, bridges of understanding.”

City commissioners agreed last April to work toward a 3,358-square-foot center inside the library that would include 1,400 square feet of exhibit space.

It would be placed in an area just south of the library’s special collections room that has recently housed DVDs and Spanish-language collections, which will be relocated.

Plans call for semi-permanent exhibits along the walls including a look at contributions of various ethnic groups to Lakeland’s development.

Renderings provided by architect Jon Kirk of Lakeland’s Straughn Trout Architects.

Exhibits in the center would rotate every six to 12 months and could address topics such as the influence of railroads, women’s suffrage, the citrus industry or the Great Depression, Selvage said.

In addition to the $150,000 community fund-raising drive, startup costs include around $50,000 for audiovisual equipment, movable walls and other equipment, Selvage said. But he said there will be no request for an appropriation in the 2020-2021 budget.

In a prior meeting this morning, City Commissioner Bill Read said he would cast a skeptical eye on new spending such as the history center during upcoming budget sessions because of the need for fiscal prudence following the coronavirus pandemic.

However, neither he nor other commissioners expressed reservations while the history center was discussed during a later workshop.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden, who had also stressed the need for fiscal conservatism in the earlier meeting, was firm in her support for the history and culture center.

It will be important to illuminate the city’s lost history, including educating people about the African-American Moorehead community that was bulldozed to make way for the civic center complex west of downtown or the contribution of black railroad workers in Lakeland’s early years, she said.

She called the idea of placing the center within the library fiscally conservative compared with earlier ideas for building a stand-alone structure.

“I’ll be the first one to write a check when you start to raise money,” she told Selvage.

Selvage emphasized that the advisory group planning the history and culture center is focused on including all who made an impact on Lakeland. “This group wants to be inclusive. We want to tell the story of, of course, the African Americans, the Cuban Americans, the Puerto Ricans and the other minorities. But just as important is the story of Publix, of citrus industry and everybody who built those industries.”

Today’s City Commission action disbanded the advisory committee that Selvage chaired and replaced it with a new advisory committee that would be led by Fields but contain most of the same members as the current group and add a marketing coordinator.

The new committee’s Community Outreach team would be led by Selvage and also include:

  • Commissioner Phillip Walker, whose push for an African-American History Museum two years ago evolved into the current plan for a history and culture center.
  • Sue Bentley, a community leaders
  • A marketing coordinator to be named.

The Exhibit Planning team would be led by LuAnn Mims, the city’s special collections librarian and presumed curator of the new center. It also includes:

  • Yvonne McShay, a Polk State College professor emeritus and author of “Our Lakeland: The Other End of Florida Avenue.”
  • Catherine Eskin, associate professor of English at Florida Southern College who has conducted extensive oral histories of Polk County’s Jewish community.
  • Mischelle Anderson, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Blake Academy.
  • Ahmad Taylor, an illustrator who grew up in Lakeland and now lives in Atlanta.
  • Sallie Brisbane, a former school principal and owner of Well Done Events.
  • Alex Rich, executive director of the Polk Museum of Arts, in an advisory capacity.
  • Emily Foster, historic preservation expert with the city Department of Community and Economic Development.
  • Teresa Martinez, president and CEO of the Institute of Spanish Communication Inc.