GULFPORT -- The John C. Robinson Brown Condor Association has for years been looking for a home for its Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum to honor the state's rich aviation history, and the achievements of its most famous pilots and astronauts.
It's latest hope is that the city will be willing to donate for a museum the old Rooms To Go building on Pass Road, which has the added attraction of being near the airport. The Brown Condor Association plans to make its pitch for the museum at Tuesday's Gulfport City Council meeting.
"It's an awesome concept," Mayor Billy Hewes said. "The more museums we have in this city, the better." He said the city has actually received "a substantial offer" from a for-profit company that wants to buy the building Rooms To Go gave up when it moved north of Interstate 10 off U.S. 49.
The offer came shortly after the Brown Condor Association met with Hewes and members of the administration about a possible donation. Hewes said the timing is strictly coincidental. If the purchase offer fails, he said, the city would be willing to continue negotiations with the Brown Condor Association. Hewes mentioned the possibility of a nominal lease with the association in exchange for building repairs.
"I think they've got a great vision," Hewes said, "but their challenge, as I see it, is raising the money to realize it."
Francisco Gonzalez, with the association, said the Pass Road building needs $500,000 to $800,000 in renovations.
The Mississippi Legislature gave the association $250,000 back in 2002 for a museum. Gonzalez said the money is in the bank earning interest until a location is found. He thinks the association could cover renovations with money on hand and a loan that includes the building as collateral.
"I think it should pan out," Gonzalez said. "I need for people on the council to say, 'Let's give them that building."
A network of contacts in the aviation field is anxious to donate artifacts for exhibits. Other museums with Mississippi aviation components, including the Smithsonian, have offered artifacts and assistance, Gonzalez said. He said the Hurricane Hunters and Keesler Air Force base also would be included in museum exhibits.
The association had even acquired an old Martin 404 airplane that was the first to fly into what is now the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. But the donation made in 2011 has been taken back because the association has no place to put it, he said.
There are Mississippi aviators the association wants to honor. The association already has commissioned bronze busts of John C. Robinson, the first African-American pilot to fight in combat in a foreign war, World War II Ace Jerry O'Keefe and Tuskegee airman Col. Lawrence Roberts. Plans call for 20 more bronze busts because Mississippi has many aviators -- and even Apollo astronauts Fred Haise and Stuart A. Roosa -- to honor.
In his letter, Gonzalez told supporters: "It has been our desire since the inception of the organization to preserve history, educate, and inspire people to learn about Mississippi aviators who have contributed to the development of aviation in the state, the country, and the world over.
" ... I still believe building an aviation museum, and focusing on our military by honoring them, should persuade the City Council to think hard about the possibilities and how their actions can change our city for the better."