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City of Tampa approves agreement to buy Black cemetery from investor

City council members approved the $100,000 purchase agreement of Memorial Park Cemetery from Alexis Arteaga of 2714 West Sligh LLC.

TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa City Council voted unanimously late Thursday morning to spend $100,000 on purchasing a historic Black cemetery from an investor who outbid the city for the land in an online foreclosure auction.

Council members approved an agreement to purchase Memorial Park Cemetery from Alexis Arteaga of 2714 West Sligh LLC, whose winning bid of $18,000 plus about $12,000 in additional fees made him the rightful owner of the property with thousands of graves.

"It never should have happened, and we need to find ways to never allow this again," said Michelle Patty, a local radio host and community activist who spoke before Thursday's vote.

"It's straight-up extortion what has taken place. The monies is really more than what should be paid, but we have to give people a piece of mind about their loved ones that is out there, those lost souls," she said.

The cemetery went to auction after the city of Tampa foreclosed following the owner's death in 2019. Mayor Jane Castor told 10 Investigates the estate was not interested in deeding the property to the city, so foreclosing was the only way to take ownership.

The foreclosure triggered a January auction that lasted less than four minutes.

Records show the city placed a blind bid of about $9,800, but Mayor Castor said it appears no one was monitoring the auction.

"We could have gone higher, clearly not knowing that there were other individuals bidding on that," she told 10 Investigates earlier this year.

For months, negotiations between the city and Arteaga stalled. He said the city was offering what he paid for the property, but he believed it was worth more.

Arteaga initially told 10 Investigates he considered rejecting the city's offer, "No, I probably won't accept it."

He said he would like to get a third-party appraisal of the site before further considering an offer.

The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser had a $100 assessed value of the cemetery. A spokesperson said it looks at the percentage sold versus the percentage vacant, and if there is still vacant land, then there is still value. However, the land for the cemetery was "sold out" in 2010, meaning there is no more vacant land or inventory to increase value.

Ray Nugent, principal of Tampa-based ValuePros, said there is a strong argument for it not having a higher assessed value. 

"The property really can't be used for anything else," he said. "I don't know an appraiser that would even take this on."

Arteaga told 10 Investigates he did not initially know the land was a cemetery when he placed his online bid. He said he only looked at the acreage.

Hillsborough County's foreclosure sale site warns bidders it is their responsibility to research the properties they want to buy. Properties are posted weeks in advance of the sale so that there is enough time for bidders to do their due diligence.

“This is the final resting place for many of Tampa’s forefathers and foremothers, so the City of Tampa needed to do whatever we could to ensure this property receives the care, maintenance, and dignity that it deserves,” Mayor Jane Castor said in a statement on Thursday.

“It was always protected from development, but City ownership should ease people’s concerns about a real estate speculator owning it. I appreciate the City Council’s vote, and I know the community does too.”

Emerald Morrow is an investigative reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10TampaBay.com. To read more about the search for lost African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area, head to wtsp.com/erased.

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