At Pulse Shooting Site, a Plan to Remember Renews Pain for Some


ORLANDO — The struggle to heal has been palpable here in the years since 2016, when a gunman turned Pulse, a gay nightclub, into what was then the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Each year, thousands attend wrenching services to honor the 49 people who died. The crime scene has been transformed into a powerful shrine that celebrates the idea that love is stronger than hate.

And there are plans to turn the shuttered club into the centerpiece of a permanent memorial and build a soaring museum nearby that would mark what happened here for generations to come. The county, the state and multiple corporations have agreed to give millions toward the $45 million project.

But the healing is far from evident among a group of survivors and families of the dead who say the project is not assuaging their pain, but exacerbating it. They seek a simpler memorial and argue that the money would be better spent helping the 53 people who were injured that night and survived.

In particular, they object to the fact that the project is being directed by a private foundation led by the former club owner, a restaurateur whose credentials to run a museum don’t impress them and whose interest in drawing crowds strikes them as offensive.

“My son’s brutal death is not a tourist attraction to fill hotel rooms,” said Christine Leinonen, the mother of Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32, who was fatally shot. “It’s obnoxious. They smell money. My son is the money that they smell.”

The club owner, Barbara Poma, can point to legions of people who fully support her vision: everyone from the former president of Walt Disney World to Lance Bass of the boy band NSYNC, and Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player. They all serve on the board of the nonprofit she created, onePULSE Foundation. More important, she says she has broad support from many of the families of those lost, 45 of whom have agreed to lend their names to scholarships that the foundation will award.

“The purpose of the museum will be to honor the life of our children, to tell their story,” said Mayra Alvear, whose daughter Amanda, 25, was killed. “I want them to be more than just a picture and a name.”

The question of how to properly commemorate a mass shooting has, sadly, become a topic for debate in devastated communities across the United States. In Parkland, Fla., El Paso, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas — where 58 people were killed in a 2017 shooting, surpassing the toll at Pulse — archivists are also collecting objects to preserve a moment in their communities’ histories, and considering memorials or even museums.

But the conversation has turned bitter in Orlando, where the Pulse sites are scheduled to open in 2022.

“This is a long process, and it will be contentious at times,” said Anthony Gardner, an official with the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, which has been advising on the Orlando project. “It will be emotionally charged, but you will find common ground. This is still raw for them.”

The plan for an ambitious memorial was hatched in the months after a lone gunman, Omar Mateen, apparently inspired by Islamic State propaganda, stalked through the club early on June 12, 2016, creating carnage. The club, a center of gay night life in Orlando, had been opened about a decade earlier by Ms. Poma, 51, and her husband, Rosario, in memory of her brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991.

Now, Ms. Poma said, she wants to create another kind of memorial, a place where people can learn about what happened, hear the stories of those who died, recognize the efforts of the first responders who rushed to the scene and see the outpouring of support for the L.G.B.T.Q. community that followed the massacre. As part of her research, she and other board members toured museums devoted to large-scale tragedies, like the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

“What happened in Orlando is part of American history,” said Ms. Poma. “It was a terrorist attack on our culture. It should not be forgotten.”

She has also been aided in her effort by the Orange County Regional History Center, which collected objects from the nightclub, including a bullet-riddled door and a cabinet where survivors hid, as well as thousands of notes, photographs and other objects left at makeshift memorials around Orlando.

These objects are to become part of the collection at the museum, which organizers view as not only a marker for a tragic history but also a venue devoted to L.G.B.T.Q. rights and issues such as terrorism and immigration. “It’s hugely important in our world today where violent rhetoric and hate speech are on the rise,” said Andrew J. Snyder, a board member and senior vice president of marketing and communications for Orlando Health, which has donated $1 million. “We can’t give in to that.”

Organizers said gun violence would also be addressed, although they have yet to draw up plans on how to discuss the issue, a tense one in a state where restrictions on firearms have only recently been tightened in the wake of mass shootings. The foundation said neither the shooter nor his history would be featured in initial exhibits, and any future inclusion would only come after wide consultation, including with families and survivors.

Early plans by a design team led by the French architects Coldefy & Associés call for a memorial at the site of the club, which would be encircled by water.

A few blocks away, the new museum, tall and circular, is set to rise on the site of a former meatpacking warehouse. Organizers view it as a hub for the wider development of the neighborhood, now envisioned as a new “Pulse district.” From the memorial, there will also be a half-mile “Orlando Health Survivor’s Walk,” telling the stories along the way of the survivors, and the first responders and others who helped the injured to the nearby hospitals.

Critics of the plan note that Ms. Poma, a former schoolteacher, has no experience directing a foundation. They have questioned the size of her salary as director, $150,000, though her supporters say the compensation is in line with what an executive leading a nonprofit of this size would typically earn.

The critics also point to the fact that she might profit from the planned transfer of the club site to the foundation. Whether she will sell or donate it has not been decided, and Ms. Poma has recused herself from those decisions, the foundation said.

Her husband bought the property in 2005 for $925,000 through a limited liability company. The family declined an offer of $2.25 million from the city of Orlando in 2016. Ms. Poma said the stumbling block was not the price, but the fact that she wanted to stay involved and thought the memorial should be run by a private foundation, not the city.

Months after the shooting, the ownership of the property was transferred to two other limited liability companies, according to public records. The Pomas control one, and last year transferred the other to Michael Panaggio, a Daytona Beach businessman who is a friend and financial partner with the Pomas in several restaurants.

Mr. Panaggio, 67, said the change acknowledged a loan he had made to the Pomas when they started the Pulse nightclub and that he supports their project. “I don’t care if I get any money back as long as their dream comes true,” he said.

As to her credentials, Ms. Poma said in an interview that her business experience — at one time she and her husband were running eight restaurants, employing hundreds of people — equips her for the challenge of the foundation. When it is time to begin the work associated with organizing content for the museum, Ms. Poma said the board would hire a museum professional who would address curatorial issues.

Ms. Poma said that at every step she has tried to ensure that the club community, the survivors and the families of the dead, have been consulted. For example, she said, when the competing designs were exhibited earlier this year at the history center, only survivors, first responders and families of victims were permitted to see the plans for the first three days. The jury that ultimately picked the winning proposal included the mother of a victim who was killed, and a survivor of the shooting.

Yet some of the families who are cooperating with the museum’s scholarship plans have also signed on to a lawsuit against the Pomas that contends they bear some responsibility for what happened at the club because, the suit says, they failed to provide proper security, a charge the club owners have denied.

Ms. Poma, in a statement responding to the criticism, said, “To question my intent or motives based on the mistaken assumptions, suggestions or speculation of others who have no knowledge of our circumstances or of our character is misplaced and unjustified.”

Another issue the museum will face is whether, in a city so stocked with tourist attractions, the Pulse project would draw enough visitors to underwrite its operating costs. Ms. Poma said that the temporary memorial already attracts about 300 visitors a day, and that the museum’s message will resonate with L.G.B.T.Q. visitors to the area. A former mayor of Orange County, Teresa Jacobs, who was in office at the time of the shootings, agreed it will be popular.

“There are people that would come here just because Pulse happened here,” she said. “But I think people who are already planning a trip to Orlando will take an afternoon away from the theme parks.”

For Ms. Leinonen, who has formed an organization called the Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum, the worry is not that the project will fail, but that it will be too successful, attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year to what she hoped would be a quiet place for contemplation.

Though more than $30 million was raised in the aftermath of the shootings to help victims’ families and those who were injured, several survivors said it wasn’t enough and objected to the sums now being directed toward an educational effort. One survivor, Norman Casiano, 29, a former chef and makeup artist, was shot twice in the back while he hid in the bathroom. He can no longer work, he said.

“They are trying to make money off a tragic situation and trying to make this a tourist attraction when I myself need a lot of financial help,” he said. “I called. They just turned me down. They said they didn’t have the funds to help any of the survivors or the families.”

Jessenia Marquez, who lost her cousin at Pulse, said her daughter, Kassandra, now 26, who was also at the club that night and fled the shooting, had been unable to hold down a full-time job since the attack, and though she had received $25,000 to help her cope with her trauma, that money had now stopped. “There is no respect for those still suffering,” Ms. Marquez said.

Ms. Alvear, who lost her daughter and sits on the museum’s advisory council, says the critics are wrong about Ms. Poma and the impact of the project.

“I wish they would come and sit down and speak to Barbara,” she said. “That’s what I did. I met her. I wanted to see her face.” She discovered, she said, that Ms. Poma is a “beautiful person. I saw it in her face.”

The memorial and the museum, she said, would not merely be tourist draws but would operate as ambassadors for the message of the power of love.

“It can transform people’s lives if we do it right,” she said of the project, “and we are going to be doing it right. Our kids’ lives are never going to be in vain.”

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Florida and Susan Beachy from New York.


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