Historians continue debating whether Juan Ponce de Leon landed on Melbourne Beach, but one thing is for certain: He isn’t standing atop a pedestal at his namesake park.
After years of fundraising, the Hispanic civil rights group United Third Bridge announced it would unveil a 10-foot, $65,000 bronze statue of the Spanish explorer during a gala April 2 ceremony commemorating the 500th anniversary of Ponce’s arrival in Florida.
Dozens of dignitaries, Space Coast officials and residents attended. But there was no statue, just a rectangular cement base with black-granite panels.
Addressing the crowd, UTB President Samuel Lopez said organizers didn’t read the “fine print on the engineer’s paperwork” that stated an epoxy used with statue-mounting hardware had to cure for 28 days.
“You guys are going to see the statue going up this week. You’re going to start seeing the construction,” Lopez announced.
That was 11 weeks ago. A metal mounting bracket is now bolted atop the pedestal — but still no statue.
In an interview this week with Local 6 News partner Florida Today, Lopez acknowledged that the April 2 unveiling date proved overly optimistic.
Rockledge sculptor and metalwork artist Rafael Picon is still working on the statue’s facial details at his home studio, Lopez said. Picon also encountered a problem crafting one of the figure’s hands, but he has fixed that issue, Lopez said.
Since the April 2 “unveiling ceremony,” Lopez said UTB encountered delays installing pedestal hardware, stemming from a broken drill bit and engineering paperwork for flanges, screws and cement.
The metal bracket was installed June 4, and Lopez said epoxy is curing now. He declined to provide a revised timetable for a statute-unveiling ceremony.
“I don’t want to give anybody a date, because that’s what screwed everything up in the first place. I don’t want what happened before to happen again, so nobody can say, ‘Hey, here we go again,’” Lopez said.
Florida Today asked to photograph the statue but Picon declined. Lopez said Picon does not want to reveal the figure until it goes on public display.
Picon did allow Florida Today to photograph him working on a clay model of the statue in 2011.
Lopez said UTB is making payments to Picon for the $65,000 statue fee, and private-donor fundraising continues. Statue-mounting hardware and labor costs remain undetermined. Lopez said none of the unveiling delays is related to financing.
Lopez said UTB plans to continue organizing re-enactments of Ponce de Leòn’s landing every April at the park. As a long-term goal, the group is pursuing construction of a $2 million multicultural educational building at the park.
Juan Ponce de Leòn is credited with “discovering” and naming “La Florida” on April 2, 1513. Historians disagree about whether he landed near St. Augustine or Melbourne Beach.
In a similar April 2 ceremony, Ponte Vedra Beach officials unveiled a bronze statue of the Spanish explorer near the Guana Matanzas Tolomato Estuarine Research Reserve.
Brevard County Parks and Recreation does not have a statue maintenance or insurance agreement with UTB, said Marsha Cantrell, parks support services manager. Jack Masson, parks and recreation director, will discuss the topic with Lopez, she said.
That worries South Beaches resident Jim Rosasco, who lives about a half-mile from Juan Ponce de Leon Landing. He served years ago on the park’s advisory board, and he fears his tax dollars will be spent on statue repairs.
“No one has seen this statue. No one has seen what it’s made out of. If a storm comes and destroys it, will the county have to come in and replace it? I want to know who’s responsible for this stuff,” Rosasco said.
On April 12, Rosasco photographed broken cement and rocks left behind by workers who drilled mounting holes in the statue’s base. Rosasco emailed the pictures to Commissioner Trudie Infantini and complained.
Statue workers did not properly clean up the site, and county park staffers later cleaned up the mess because it posed a safety hazard, Greg Minor, south area parks operations manager, emailed Infantini on April 15.
Lopez said Rosasco is a longtime opponent of UTB’s efforts to develop educational resources at Juan Ponce de Leon Landing. He said Rosasco did not gripe in 2009 when the pedestal was damaged by a runaway vehicle — or, as Lopez suspects, broken by a vandal.
“You’re not going to complain about big shattered pieces of granite that were slammed and left on the ground, for weeks? That’s how petty that is,” Lopez said.
“No matter what we do there, there will always be someone complaining,” he said.