Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

Museum of Science and Industry initiates move to downtown Tampa

TAMPA — Almost exactly one year ago, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik first raised the possibility of moving the Museum of Science and Industry to his 40-acre redevelopment project near downtown Tampa.

MOSI leaders now want to take Vinik up on his offer.

The MOSI board voted Tuesday to begin a move that will eventually close the science center's home in north Tampa since 1982 and reopen it in the city's urban core. The decision comes just five days after a group of consultants said relocating downtown could jumpstart the struggling museum by boosting attendance and revenue.

A task force led by Mike Schultz, MOSI board chairman and president and CEO of Florida Hospital's West Florida Region, will piece together a strategic plan that will outline how the museum can remake itself in a new building and location with a refocused and reinvented brand.

Schultz said the feasibility study from the two consultants, Museum Management Consultants and ConsultEcon, was "hard to argue with."

"That's why we took action quickly," Schultz said. "We wanted to show we're excited."

But he added: "There are a lot of unanswered questions."

Starting with: How will MOSI pay for it?

MOSI is a nonprofit but Hillsborough County owns its current building and land, and has helped maintain and prop up the museum during recent financial difficulties. The museum has significant debt, a backlog of bills, more expenses than revenue and declining admissions.

Since the start of the fiscal year in October, MOSI has lost about $277,000.

Museum president and CEO Molly Demeulenaere acknowledged financing a new, modern building will take a significant fundraising effort.

"Any time that you take on an endeavor of this size, you definitely need some leadership gifts in your pipelines," she said. "They can't come in $1,000 increments.

"We will need some very large donors to be part of this conversation."

The task force plans to answer other questions — like "Where will it go?" "What will happen to the existing building?" and "Are the IMAX theater and the dinosaur coming, too?" — within a year.

In a statement, Vinik said he hopes to help.

"We are excited about the MOSI board's vote today, and more importantly, share their vision for what a world-class science center in downtown can offer the community," he said.

It will still likely be several years before MOSI leaves its current home and reopens about 11 miles away in downtown, assuming everything goes as planned.

A downtown museum will likely be much smaller, potentially half the size, than its sprawling campus on E Fowler Avenue near the University of South Florida. There, MOSI has boasted it is the largest science center in the southeast.

Consultants said a smaller museum will be more manageable financially and more flexible in its offerings and programs.

In the proposed location, it could connect via the Riverwalk to attractions and dining from Channelside Bay Plaza all the way to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, drawing in tourists and locals.

Consultants estimated a move could increase attendance by as much as 40 percent.

"It will compliment everything that's already there," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Thom Stork, president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium, MOSI's future neighbor, agreed but added that the museum desperately needs a makeover.

"A new MOSI needs to be a reinvented MOSI," Stork said. "For my children who are now in their late 30s, MOSI was very important to them and it was a big part of their life, but I don't know if my grandchildren look at MOSI the same."

The Hillsborough County Commission would still have to approve the move, and if conditions change, the museum could reverse course.

Demeulenaere said the board was generally in agreement that it was time for a change. After a two-hour closed-door meeting, Demeulenaere said 17 board members voted in favor of a move, several abstained and one person voted against it. She would not say who that was.

At times, factions of MOSI's board have privately voiced concerns that the county was forcing the museum's hand. County officials have planned an ambitious redevelopment for the area around USF and would like the parcel hosting MOSI to generate tax revenue. Ideally, the land would lure a corporation or two to anchor a proposed innovation district.

There were worries, too, that MOSI was abandoning its commitment to underserved populations in that part of the county.

There will be plenty of time to figure out how MOSI can continue that mission as it also positions itself to attract new demographics, Demeulenaere said.

"Moving trucks are not here now," she said. "It's a massive undertaking. It's going to be one step at a time. We're not looking at a move in the next couple years."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.

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