Instead of reported surplus, Dalí Museum still has bills to pay

Visitors climb the spiral staircase at the center of the new Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. It has drawn more than 137,000 since January.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Visitors climb the spiral staircase at the center of the new Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. It has drawn more than 137,000 since January.

ST. PETERSBURG — Buzz over the new Salvador Dalí Museum is going beyond its art to its spending.

Two Pinellas County commissioners raised concerns this week after hearing published reports that the $36 million waterfront attraction had come in $700,000 under its construction budget, prompting it to give a $350,000 bonus to its contractor and pocket the rest.

Commissioners Norm Roche and Neil Brickfield felt that taxpayers should share in any savings, since they had given a last-minute $5 million infusion in November to cover a shortfall for the project.

But Dalí director Hank Hine said those reports — from construction industry trade publications and press releases from the contractor and architect — were wrong, and there was no surplus to share. In fact, he said, the costs of the new museum have reached $36.5 million, and bills are still coming in.

"We don't have any excess from this whole project," Hine said. Construction costs were indeed under budget, but Hine said other expenses have more than taken up the difference.

"It's not real money. It's just extra money that we didn't have to pay out."

Taxpayers have a stake in the museum because Pinellas County promised $2.5 million in tourist tax revenue, matched by $2.5 million in property taxes from St. Petersburg.

Under the Dalí's agreement with contractor the Beck Group, the firm was due part of any savings above a maximum construction cost of nearly $30 million. The company took on the risk of overruns. As an incentive — not unusual in such deals — the company was to receive a share of savings up to $400,000. The rest could stay with the museum.

Expenses for building materials were less than expected. For example, sod cost $15,000, not $50,000, said Mark House, managing partner at the Tampa office of the Beck Group.

"We felt really good about it. The museum felt really good about it. The board of directors felt really good about it," House said.

But costs elsewhere were higher or unplanned, Hine said. For example, skylights needed covers to protect artwork from damage. Extra cost: $32,000. The museum spent $244,000 on a parklike setting outside, too.

Susan Latvala and Karen Seel, the current and past chairwomen of the County Commission and Tourist Development Council, said they're convinced after talking with Hine on Wednesday that the Dalí had no savings.

Even if there had been a surplus, the agreement to give tourist tax dollars to the Dalí didn't allow for a reduction if costs came in low. Changing it could bring legal trouble for the county, said chief assistant county attorney Dennis Long.

Roche, who voted against the Dalí money, said he now believes everything is in order.

Noting rave reviews and high attendance since the Dalí's opening in January, Seel and Latvala said it was worthwhile to provide the tax money in a deal brokered by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

"If there was in fact savings, I'd be interested in looking. But based on this information, it doesn't appear there is," Brickfield said Thursday. "It appears there is some cost overrun. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut, and we'll all get off cheap."

Besides higher costs, there was another unexpected funding problem. When St. Petersburg issued bonds to pay for its contribution, a $200,000 fee was taken out of the $2.5 million contribution, Hine said. So the Dalí was short there, too.

"It was a surprise to me," Hine said, though he said it turned out to be standard.

The Dalí has continued fundraising to help make up the difference. The museum also is counting on increased revenue this year, with attendance that has already topped 137,000 in three months. The previous average for a full year was 200,000.

And Hine has a promise: "We're not going to ask the county for any more money."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Instead of reported surplus, Dalí Museum still has bills to pay 04/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 12:15am]

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