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Great Explorations museum haggles with St. Petersburg over debt

Great Explorations opened a tree house attraction in 2007. The children’s museum at 1925 Fourth St. N in the Sunken Gardens complex has fallen on hard times as donations and attendance have dropped.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times (2007)

Great Explorations opened a tree house attraction in 2007. The children’s museum at 1925 Fourth St. N in the Sunken Gardens complex has fallen on hard times as donations and attendance have dropped.

ST. PETERSBURG — Great Explorations, the struggling children's museum that is in breach of its rental agreement with the city, will have to wait another two weeks before it knows where its home will be.

The City Council has not been able to agree on how or whether to forgive the money the museum owes for its space at the Sunken Gardens complex on Fourth Street N.

The museum is current on its rent, but it hasn't been paying its monthly fee to cover construction costs of a new entrance that the city built seven years ago. The city estimates the museum owes $38,000.

What the museum pays the city is composed of three parts: monthly rent of $1,788; 2 percent of sales; and a $3,095 monthly fee for the entrance construction.

Mayor Bill Foster proposed having the museum pay a flat monthly fee of $4,000, and $1,000 per month for 36 months to recoup the city's losses through 2009. No action was taken on this proposal.

The council approved the original lease in 2001, but the museum has struggled as donations have dropped.

To help get it back on track, the museum enlisted the help of former mayoral candidate Scott Wagman to lobby the city for more favorable terms. Wagman, whose wife, Beth Houghton, has sat on the museum board, spoke with council members Karl Nurse, Wengay Newton and Jim Kennedy before Thursday's meeting.

Nurse proposed that the museum pay $2,200 per month over three years and $4,883 per month to cover rent and the cost of the new entrance over the next two years. That motion failed. Newton said he didn't want to increase subsidies at the museum and instead wanted ways to have the museum provide space for summer camp activities, which the city may cut this year.

He proposed that the city charge a flat rate of $3,000 per month over five years and forgive the $38,000 the museum owes. That failed too.

So City Council members voted to bring the issue back at an April 8 meeting.

"We have more horse-trading to do," Wagman said after the meeting. "I'm impressed by the level of detail the City Council is going into for relatively small sums."

It'll be the latest round of negotiations between the museum and city. Many council members have grown skeptical of the museum's ability to meet its lease agreement.

Wagman says current payment terms are too tough. He wants $2,200 per month in rent and to pay $24,000 of the construction debt. He also wants the percentage on sales to be dropped.

The museum stopped paying the $3,000 monthly fee last year, which the city interprets as a violation of its lease. It didn't help that museum officials didn't attend meetings last year meant to hash out these issues. Or that an audit of museum finances, which the lease requires, wasn't delivered to the city.

Museum executive director Alan Kahle said the museum is now cooperating and blamed some of last year's missed communications on confusion during a busy political season. The audit has been ordered, and it will be produced by May.

"We're working together now," Kahle said. "It's important that we don't look back."

Wagman's job is to convince the council that the museum's problems are in the past. He said the museum fired 17 staffers last year and that it's still cutting costs. Its previous director, David Penn was a visionary, but also spent too freely, he said.

"The city's not the enemy here," Wagman said. "We made mistakes of our own."

Foster is receptive to working with the museum and gets along with Wagman, who contributed to his mayoral campaign after losing in the primary. But Foster still views the city as subsidizing Great Explorations. And museum operations sometimes conflict with how the city wants the facility used, he said.

For instance, the museum operates a day care on its property on weekdays. But that causes problems when older people attending Sunken Gardens want to use the bathrooms and have to dodge children.

It will be up to the council to decide what to do. The day care center is considered a major plus for council member Steve Kornell.

So Wagman will continue to try to convince council members that the museum deserves a break. To do that, he'll have to change the mind-set that Great Explorations is a charity case.

"The notion that the museum is getting a subsidy is tough to swallow," he said. "We are an amenity."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Museum's hard times

Great Explorations has been battered by poor attendance and falling revenue. In 2006-07, 101,000 people attended, but that dropped 20 percent the next year and has not recovered. Income dropped 16 percent this year from last.

The museum's monthly payment has three parts: rent of $1,788; 2 percent of sales; and a $3,095 monthly fee that pays for construction of the entrance. The latter fee is what the museum hasn't been paying, causing a $38,000 debt.

Great Explorations museum haggles with St. Petersburg over debt 03/25/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 6:58pm]

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