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Pulse critics grow louder: Tear down club and stop museum plans

Critics say the former nightclub needs to be torn down and plans for a museum scrapped.

Despite recent attempts to be more transparent about its finances, the onePULSE Foundation faces a small but growing number of critics who say the nightclub where 49 people were shot to death in 2016 needs to be torn down and plans for a museum scrapped.

“What they’re doing makes [the site] a mockery rather than somewhere you can reflect and have peace,” said Norman Casiano, a 29-year-old survivor of the attack who said he is still dealing with intense pain from gunshots to his lower back and the anguish of losing two friends. “They’re talking about a theme-park environment where you buy memorabilia. … I would love to see the actual Pulse club completely torn down. If something needed to be made on the site, have it be a remembrance garden with beautiful trees and flowers.”

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Casiano is one of a reported 105 members of the Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum, launched July 29 by a handful of Pulse victims’ family members, survivors and local LGBTQ activists.

That move followed calls by local politicians in June for the nonprofit onePULSE Foundation to undergo an audit and release it to the public. The requests came as the mother of a Pulse victim shouted at foundation CEO Barbara Poma — the gay nightclub’s former co-owner —during a public ceremony shortly before the three-year anniversary of the shooting.

Last week, the foundation posted the financial data on its website, onePULSEfoundation.org, along with an auditor’s letter stating the organization’s records were “free from material misstatement” and followed accepted accounting practices.

According to the records, the nonprofit spent more than $100,000 on the interim memorial at the South Orange Avenue club site, $8,700 on a yearly remembrance ceremony and $10,000 for two family days — private gatherings of family members and survivors that mixed “music, entertainment, games, food and festivities” with “resources for mental health counseling and other services.”

The foundation had total revenue of $1.6 million, including donations, fundraising events and $8,200 from selling T-shirts declaring “We will not let hate win” and rainbow-themed totes, lapel pins and magnets.

It spent nearly $92,000 last year on advertising and promotion, nearly $109,000 on management fees, $3,500 on travel, $68,000 on public relations and $286,000 on salaries and wages, including just under $110,000 for Poma, now making $150,000 a year from the foundation. Poma’s involvement in the foundation — as she and her husband continue to battle a liability lawsuit against the club — is a particular point of contention by critics.

“She’s making a hefty salary off my son’s death,” said Christine Leinonen, a former police officer and attorney. Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, was killed in the June 12, 2016, attack that left 49 dead and 68 seriously wounded. “These [young survivors] can’t afford their co-pays, they’re not getting PTSD therapy, and meanwhile you’re profiting and you want an admission-charging, souvenir-selling, tour-bus-visiting hate museum.”

Poma’s salary, the foundation said, was set by the organization’s board of trustees. And the memorial, according to Poma and Leah Shepherd, the foundation’s chief operating officer, will always be free and open to the public. The museum, located a half-mile away, would charge a “modest fee” to help cover maintenance, and it would have a gift shop.

Leinonen, who aired her complaints during a nationally televised CNN town hall forum on gun violence last week, also launched a Change.org petition a month ago asking the Orlando City Council to “stop profit on blood shed” by taking over the property. The petition now has over 43,000 signatures.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said Tuesday the city “currently has no plans to utilize eminent domain,” allowing the government to take over the site.

“The onePULSE Foundation has spent more than two years researching and developing a community-driven and focused process to create a permanent space for remembrance and reflection that honors the 49 innocent lives that were taken,” Dyer said.

The mayor added that the city remains “committed to supporting” the work of the onePULSE foundation “to ensure it is a place of hope and healing.”

In the months immediately after the shooting, the city had offered to buy the club property from Poma and her husband, but after it appeared that a deal had been reached, Poma suddenly changed her mind.

“I had learned that other memorials and museums were not done by municipalities,” Poma said recently. “I had done some research and realized that Oklahoma City was done by a foundation, by a nonprofit, that was not the government, even though it was a government building and they had partnerships with municipalities. … I also knew I loved Pulse. I loved the community I served and knew. It was a community I was part of for so long. ... It’s something I knew I was called to do.”

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Poma had started the club in 2004 in tribute to her older brother, John, who died of AIDS in 1991.

“I remember [their parents] carted him off to therapists to fix him, to priests to talk to him, all kinds of conversations,” said Poma, who was raised in a devoutly Catholic household. “I loved my brother. And so when … we endured the trauma of burying him and all his friends, it changed who I was.”

Shepherd said the nonprofit has gone to great lengths to include the wishes of family members and survivors, including enlisting them for a foundation task force, hosting a series of public forums and doing a public survey that got feedback from 41 family members, 60 survivors and 86 first-responders.

The foundation leaders also visited memorials and museums at sites of other mass tragedies — including the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Oklahoma City National Memorial and the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Penn. — and talked with nonprofit leaders there.

“The greatest gift they gave us was … they told us how messy this was going to be, how complicated this was going to be, how emotional this was going to be,” Shepherd said. “Nobody sold us on this with the idea it was going to be all unicorns and rainbows to build a memorial and museum based on a tragedy where people were murdered.”

But the museum opponents are adamant.

“Once I heard that she [Poma] didn’t want to sell Pulse to the city, I objected,” Casiano said. “I’ve stayed quiet for three years” — as he moved back with his parents and his mother lost work to care for him. “But seeing everything that’s going on, I can’t stay quiet anymore.”

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