Harrison County

‘Awesome’ aviation museum ready to take flight in Gulfport

The city of Gulfport has leased the old Rooms To Go building on Pass Road to the John C. Robinson Brown Condor Association, which plans to raise funds for repairs for the Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum.
The city of Gulfport has leased the old Rooms To Go building on Pass Road to the John C. Robinson Brown Condor Association, which plans to raise funds for repairs for the Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum. calee@sunherald.com

The Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum finally has a home, but it's quite the fixer-upper.

The Gulfport City Council has agreed to a lease on the old Rooms To Go building on Pass Road to the John C. Robinson Brown Condor Association, named for a Gulfport native who was at one time the most famous black aviator in the world and father of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

“It's a great building – open spaces,” architect Frank Genzer of Biloxi said Monday. “Obviously, it's been empty for awhile and there needs to be some work on it, predominantly roofing and air conditioning ... but the building is great. Finally, after all these years, it can really be another museum that will be an asset to the Coast.”

Now begins the work of repairs and fund-raising, but museum enthusiasts say they have a big community of pilots from which to draw for assistance and artifacts. Francisco Gonzalez, association board president, set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for roofing materials. The initial goal is $20,000.

“I’m planning to use social media,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to be very modern when it comes to raising money and awareness.”

The association searched 11 years for a museum home, hoping for a long time that it could be located at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. That didn’t work out.

Genzer thinks the Rooms To Go space could be the next best thing and even hopes an observation deck can be built on the roof, where views of the airport are good. The building has a two-story space front and center, which Genzer said will be ideal for displaying airplanes as long as the structure will support it.

The museum will be a repository for the state’s rich aviation history, including exhibits featuring the Tuskegee Airmen. Tuskegee trained African-American airmen at a time when their opportunities were restricted.

The association has bronze busts of Robinson, Tuskegee airman Lawrence E. Roberts, who lived in Pass Christian, and World War II flying ace Jerry O’Keefe of Biloxi, who recently passed away.

Gonzalez said the association has $250,000 for renovations of the two-story building. A business plan that University of Southern Mississippi students developed includes an extensive list of aviation-connected companies to approach for funding, and museums that can provide advice and assistance.

Meridian’s famous Key brothers, aviators who helped pioneer mid-air refueling and set a long-standing flight endurance record, will be included in the museum. The board plans to work closely with Keesler Air Force Base and hopes to have a Hurricane Hunters exhibit that could feature simulation of a C-130 flight into the eye of a hurricane.

The lease with Gulfport requires the association to pay $200 a month in rent and includes a one-year timetable for repairs. Once the museum opens, rent climbs to $300 a month, plus 10 percent of ticket sales.

“The museum is a go,” said Councilman Myles Sharp, who was involved in lease negotiations. “I think it’s going to be awesome.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

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