Sunday, January 21, 2018
Business

Hillsborough county agrees to give financially troubled Tampa museum $400,000 — if they meet these 14 conditions

TAMPA — The financially troubled Museum of Science and Industry is again asking Hillsborough County for money, though its board will have to agree to a long list of conditions before receiving a requested $400,000 loan.

The museum, known as MOSI, asked for the money to cover payroll and operating expenses. County Administrator Mike Merrill has tentatively approved the loan pending MOSI's approval of the conditions. The museum board will discuss the terms at a meeting Tuesday.

This is not the first time MOSI has tapped into a county reserve fund to help alleviate financial woes. During the last decade, MOSI has requested between $600,000 and $800,000 a year to get through the fall lull, a slow time for museum visitation after the busy, tourism-fueled summer months.

MOSI president and CEO Molly Demeulenaere said the $400,000 request is evidence that the museum board has been working hard to establish financial stability.

"We have a lot of old debts that we're working to get rid of," Demeulenaere said. "It's still a work in progress."

But the conditions for this year's loan are extensive. The museum must put up its endowment fund as collateral and get county approval before spending it, documents show. The county will approve MOSI's annual budget and amendments, a term that has existed in prior loan agreements.

And the museum will need the county's permission to take on any more debt or make capital improvements greater than $5,000 that are not in the budget or funded by grants. MOSI must pay back the loan within 12 months.

The final condition gives MOSI 90 days to address a list of problems the county identified during a site review two months ago. It found that MOSI was having trouble paying certain vendors on time, and that some have refused to continue working with the museum. The report also outlined concerns with the security of vendor checks.

County Commissioner Les Miller, who represents the county on MOSI's board, said the museum's tight leash does not mean it is still spiraling. On the contrary, he said, it shows that the board and the county are taking the museum's financial issues seriously.

"They're not where they need to be, but they're not where they were before," Miller said. "In 12 months, hopefully, they'll be able to be back on stable ground."

Miller expressed confidence in Demeulenaere's leadership.

The CEO came under fire this summer when the Tampa Bay Times reported that she was selected for the top job at MOSI — the largest science center in the Southeast— despite financial troubles during the time she led Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone, a science museum in Sarasota. It closed its doors shortly after she left in 2012.

Demeulenaere joined MOSI as vice president for development, then served as interim CEO before securing the job in June.

Supporters say MOSI's financial shortcomings began long before she took charge.

"As we're working with her and her new team, we're getting some confidence in her ability to turn this around," said Merrill, who had been critical of Demeulenaere's leadership.

Demeulenaere would not say whether she felt the terms were agreeable but said the museum board is committed to working with the county to bring financial stability soon.

MOSI's five-year plan includes phasing out the placement of expensive, permanent exhibits. Instead, the museum will regularly swap out exhibits to give visitors a different experience each time they come, Demeulenaere said.

Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

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