ECHO was vital to preserving Dr. Bethune’s home
BY THE DAYTONA TIMES STAFF
Daytona native and long-time resident Percy Williamson, Sr. served as director of the city of Daytona Beach’s Leisure Services Division from 2003 to 2018. As a result, he is a historian of sorts regarding the development and construction of buildings such as the Yvonne Scarlett Golden Cultural & Educational Center that have become cultural institutions in the Black community.
He’s also well-versed in municipal construction financing, particularly in the use of Environmental, Cultural, Historic and Outdoor (ECHO) grants-in-aid that have been used to build new edifices or repair aging and dilapidated structures of importance particularly to Daytona Beach’s residents.
ECHO funds have been used to build or improve educational learning centers, museums, art centers and other facilities for cultural enrichment.
Funds have also been used to preserve, protect, and restore Volusia’s unique history and heritage as well as to enhance parks and outdoor recreation, including sports venues.
How ECHO started
In 1986, Volusia County became the first county in America in which voters approved a bond issue to acquire land and set it aside. In 2000, Volusia County voters overwhelmingly approved twin programs – Volusia Forever and ECHO – to save land in its natural state and develop parks, trails and other outdoor recreation facilities, in addition to funding construction and repairs of culturally significant structures.
Over the past 20 years, Volusia Forever has permanently protected more than 38,000 acres of Volusia County land from development. At the same time, ECHO has 241 projects in every region of Volusia County. Attendance records show ECHO-funded projects are visited by more than 600,000 people every year.
Money in the ECHO Fund has come from a property tax of 20 cents on $1,000 of taxable property value. That’s less than 50 cents a week on a home with a taxable value of $130,000.
The program is administered by the Volusia County Council and is subject to full public disclosure by an audit conducted every year. There’ve been no adverse audit findings in the entire 20-year history of the ECHO fund.
Volusia County voters have invested more than $95 million in the ECHO Fund, while grant recipients have provided more than $150 million in matching dollars for ECHO-funded projects.
Of 12 Daytona Beach-based projects that used ECHO funds, Williamson’s former department worked on eight of them, including Bethune-Cookman University’s Performing Arts Center (PAC) and Visual Art Gallery.
ECHO funds in the amount of $500,000 were used to rehabilitate part of the PAC and construct a three-story art gallery with lights and a hanging system that allows all types of artistic works to be fully presented.
“They put up these big panels that allow paintings to be displayed on them. It’s extremely nice, but they were very expensive. That gave the university the opportunity to bring in shows and displays they could never do before,” Williamson told the Daytona Times.
“It also brought additional foot traffic to the building and allowed B-CU to highlight more cultural activities, particularly from the African American perspective.”
The Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation Home, which is a stone’s throw from Dr. Bethune’s on-campus gravesite, needed serious repair, including elimination of termites that were destroying the wooden structure. It’s a great example of how ECHO works.
The house was built about 1904-05, and was purchased by the school in 1913 as Dr. Bethune’s home. It was designated a United States National Historic Landmark in 1974. Because it is also listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, it had to be carefully renovated to maintain the character of the building.
“The U.S. Park Service had to be involved in the restoration,” Williamson explained. “You can do what’s called an ‘adaptive reuse’ and you can upgrade something to today’s time, but it has to be done in a particular way to maintain its essence.”
Closed for years
Restoration began in 2006. The Foundation Home was shut down for almost five years to allow the extensive repairs and upgrades to be finished. During that time, visitors were not allowed. Williamson says that shutdown was detrimental to student life and to the institution itself.
“The Foundation Home is a place where all the students are directed when they get to B-CU. It’s a requirement that they visit there so that they get the essence of Dr. Bethune and the reason why that campus is there.
“When B-CU brings donors and heads of philanthropic foundations to go up to discuss financial support, the first place they bring them to is the Foundation Home, because that’s the same place that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt used to visit on a regular basis. That’s the reason why the Foundation House is so popular.”
The renovation was completed in at a total cost of $720,000. Of that amount, ECHO contributed $259,600. The Foundation Home finally reopened in April 2011.
It is now internationally popular. In 2019, the online travel site TripAdvisor listed it as the No. 1 tourist activity in Volusia County – even more popular than Daytona International Speedway and going to the beach.
What would B-CU have done to upgrade the PAC and the Foundation Home if ECHO funds were not available?
According to Williamson, “The school would have had to dip into the operating funds. Instead, they were able to get other funds to finish the projects by leveraging the ECHO funds they already had. They needed that first grant from ECHO to get the funding process started. ECHO made both projects happen.”
Volusia Forever and ECHO will end in 2021, unless voters renew both programs on November 3.