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MOSI draws scrutiny from Hillsborough for money, bug problems

Museum of Science and Industry

TAMPA — Roaches had nested in the cappuccino machine at the Museum of Science and Industry's cafe, the anonymous caller to the state hotline said, and bugs were crawling around the condiments.

When inspectors arrived two days later, they found bugs by the soda machine, roach excrement on a box of plastic spoons, and rodent feces in the kitchen, according to a Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation report. Conditions were so poor, inspectors ordered MOSI's cafe closed for nearly four hours on March 12.

MOSI management says the temporary closure last week was an isolated incident, and problems have been corrected. But Hillsborough county commissioners, incensed they found out about pests at the county-owned facility through local television reports and already concerned about MOSI's finances, are not so sure.

Commissioners asked the county attorney Wednesday to review Hillsborough's contract with MOSI, the nonprofit museum which provides educational programming (and, at times, food) for thousands of local children each year. Commissioner Al Higginbotham thinks MOSI violated the contract by not telling county management about the cafe's problems.

"This is disturbing to me, knowing what kind of clientele we're serving," Higginbotham said. "If I had known we had violations like this, I wouldn't want my kids eating there."

MOSI president Wit Ostrenko is out of the country. Molly Demeulenaere, MOSI vice president of development and growth, attended Wednesday's commission meeting in his place.

"This is the first time we have had a situation with pests," Demeulenaere told commissioners. "We are extremely embarrassed."

MOSI management took "strong measures" in response to the mandatory cafe closure, Demeulenaere said, including firing its pest control company. She added pesticide that was too organic and environmentally friendly was partly to blame for the vermin outbreak.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe wondered, though, whether the cafe incident is evidence of larger problems at MOSI. County management was already concerned about the museum, which has a roughly $10 million annual budget, because MOSI asked for a loan from the county last year when it still owed on one from the year before.

"Are we dealing with broader issues, where restaurant issues are a segue into re-examining our relationship with MOSI as a whole?" Sharpe asked.

MOSI gets about $600,000 annually in state gambling money that flows through the county, which usually throws in an extra $300,000 to $500,000 for maintenance and upkeep, according to Tom Fesler, county business and support services director. Years ago, Hillsborough set up a $1.2 million interest-free loan account for MOSI to help cover costs when business slows in the fall.

MOSI needs county permission to borrow the money, however, and needs to repay it within a year. In August 2013, the museum asked for $250,000 when it still owed $250,000 of the $450,000 it had borrowed in 2012, Fesler said. This prompted the county to take a closer look at the museum's finances.

The county ultimately approved another loan, Fesler said, but the money came with strings. The museum needed to bring in outside consultants to see if business practices could be improved. The consultants are expected to visit MOSI in April.

"Our goal is to help them," Fesler said. "We want them to be successful. We wouldn't be providing funding to them if we didn't see them as an economic engine in the community."

After the meeting, Higginbotham said he's not "out to get MOSI," he just hopes Wednesday's discussion prompts changes.

"Whether it was or was not (an anomaly), it was a poor management decision not to have addressed it with county management," he said. "We need to fix it."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

MOSI draws scrutiny from Hillsborough for money, bug problems 03/19/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2014 8:13am]
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