ISLAMORADA -- The future of the much-anticipated Irv-ing Eyster Museum of Florida Keys History is in doubt.
"I think we're back to square one," said Richie Russell, vice president of the Matecumbe Historical Trust, which was to run the Eyster museum.
Russell's comments came Monday, days after the Islander, and its owner David Curry, declared the trust in default of the lease agreement the parties entered into last year. The Islander sent a letter to the trust board confirming the default decision last week, said George Hertel, who is both a board member and an Islander agent.
The default, he explained, was declared because the trust had failed to live up to multiple lease obligations, including payments that were to go toward design of the 8,000-square-foot museum. The Islander and the trust also never reached an operating agreement, as required under the lease.
"The time lines are just way overdue," Hertel said.
The collapse of the lease agreement doesn't necessarily mean the end of the history museum project, said Hertel, Russell and other trust members. Several were effusive in their praise of Curry, and Hertel said the Islander owner remains committed to having a museum or educational facility alongside the resort's conference center.
However, it is possible the facility won't be named after Eyster and won't house the historian's collection.
"I know we're going to have a museum," Matecumbe Trust board member Phyllis Mitchell said Monday, adding that the museum would house artifacts acquired from people throughout the Keys.
The end of the agreement also doesn't spell the end of the Islander conference center, which was to share the 15,000-square-foot building with the Eyster museum. The mile marker 82.1, oceanside, center is scheduled to open by November, Hertel said.
Still, the collapse of the lease is hardly what people had in mind less than a year ago, when hundreds gathered to watch the then 92-year-old Eyster participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking for the museum and conference center.
The museum was to be the culmination of a dream for Eyster, who has spent much of his life acquiring the artifacts it would house.
Meanwhile, the Islander's Curry, who was building the museum space at no charge to the trust, was hailed as the dream maker.
In a brief interview Monday, Eyster's daughter Barbara Edgar said her family was not responsible for the failed lease. Edgar, Eyster and Edgar's daughter Cinnamon hold three of the nine Matecumbe Trust board seats.
"Basically, my dad and the Eysters would never have done anything to jeopardize the museum," Edgar said, without going into specifics.
But other board members painted a different picture.
The difficulties, they said, centered largely around the Eyster family's desire not to turn over ownership of Irving Eyster's artifacts to the nonprofit trust.
"We thought the Eysters were going to donate the artifacts in exchange for naming rights," Russell said. "That assumption was wrong. They offered to do a loan agreement instead."
Such an arrangement, he explained, would have put the Eyster museum in conflict with American Association of Museums ethics standards, which stipulate that donors of artifacts can't be involved in the creative element of making the museum exhibits.
Further, said Hertel, the Islander has not even seen Eyster's full collection yet.
"It's hard to let go and I understand that with them," he said.