Thursday, August 16, 2018
Business

Carlton: A giant dinosaur may be on Tampa's horizon

Remember those 3-D posters that looked like some random pattern until you stared long enough for the underlying picture of, say, a cowboy or a unicorn or even a city skyline to come into focus, totally surprising you with the big picture?

Yeah, that's pretty much downtown Tampa at the moment.

The latest potential puzzle piece for a city coming together involves a beleaguered science museum that for 34 years has sprawled 11 miles away across 75-plus county-owned acres across from the University of South Florida.

Fair to say the later years have not been kindest to MOSI, formally known as the Museum of Science and Industry. If MOSI could pick itself up, shake itself off and bolt for a new life downtown this minute, I believe it would.

And soon, it could.

Over the years, MOSI has hosted a million or so school field trips, a controversial but fascinating exhibit of actual dead human bodies, lots of imagination-stoking science displays, plenty of planetarium stargazing and even zip-lining.

And in a town where the visuals are not always pretty but rarely dull, MOSI's landmark is a life-sized T. rex with a bellyful of plastic bottles and aluminum cans — a Recyclosaurus, facing busy Fowler Avenue in full kitsch.

MOSI has had hard times. Some recent exhibits, including the appropriately named Disasterville, seemed outdated and a little sad. Revenue fell and vendors were owed. The big-draw IMAX theater shut down for repairs for a time. Last year, the museum asked for a county loan for basic expenses like payroll, then said no thanks when it came with tough conditions to ensure it would, you know, get paid back.

Financially, the place has taken on a patch-it-together air.

Not good. Potential Disasterville, even.

So naturally, ears perked up last year when Lightning owner Jeff Vinik talked of MOSI moving as part of his major plan to redevelop a swath of south downtown, where it could become a smaller, sleeker facility within the big Vinikville vision. And this month, MOSI's board wisely voted to get that party started.

Okay, so there's a lot to do before this can actually happen. A whole lot of private money has to be involved, though the downtown buzz will surely generate interest. (Naming rights? A Raymond James Recyclosaurus, perhaps?) Even in a more tourist-centric locale in the city's urban core, the museum has to hold to its mission as a place of discovery for kids who live here, too. The whole thing could take a few years.

But in a downtown where not so long ago pretty much the only thing going after dark was the world's saddest McDonald's, here's something: One day a stroll along the picturesque Riverwalk could start at the performing arts center and meander past assorted museums of art, children's exhibits, photography, local history and, yes, science, winding up at the aquarium. Hey, Tampa just made a list of "15 U.S. Tourist Hot Spots Nobody Cared About 15 Years Ago" — and that's on the Orbitz travel site, not some chamber of commerce Facebook page.

And if all goes well, the big picture of what's next for downtown could include a life-sized metal dinosaur.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]

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