New city contract causes concern for St. Petersburg Museum of History

Connie Kone acknowl­edges the museum has had difficulty attracting visitors.

Connie Kone acknowl­edges the museum has had difficulty attracting visitors.

ST. PETERSBURG — Will the St. Petersburg Museum of History, guardian of the city's past for nearly 90 years, become part of that past?

"The thought goes through one's head," said Connie Kone, the museum's most recent president.

With its prime waterfront location and proximity to the Pier, the museum could be at a disadvantage as plans to demolish and replace the Pier and redevelop the nearby waterfront gather steam.

"Our lease (with the city) is up in 2013," said Kone, a former City Council member. "Mayor (Bill) Foster, who is a former trustee, has always been very supportive and told us our lease would be renewed, but we recently got a draft and it's a management contract. When I read it, it concerned me."

Among its provisions is the city's right to ask the museum, at 335 Second Ave. NE, to vacate its building within 30 days, if necessary, during the Pier's construction, Kone said.

"The city will have no obligation to help with an alternate site," she said. "There are no protections, nothing that helps the museum. It sounds like an endgame."

Museum vice president Joe Griner said he is optimistic an agreement will be reached that would suit both sides.

"I think it's a first draft for us to review as a board and we're in the process of doing that,'' he said.

"None of the proposed plans or suggested plans (for the Pier) not connected with the city have included the area where the museum is located. I understand the city's concern to keep that open, but no plan that I have seen has included development that far back," he said.

One point that will definitely be discussed, Griner said, is the stipulation that would allow the city to give the museum just six months to vacate the property.

Chris Ballestra, director of the city's downtown enterprise facilities, said the provision is consistent with the agreement the city has with the Columbia restaurant.

"It's difficult to lock in a long-term agreement without knowing what will be going on with the Pier. There's a big project out there and that should not affect the Museum of History, but that being said, we don't know what we don't know,'' he said.

"We want to make sure to continue the partnership we have, but not to constrain anything in the future. We definitely want to make sure they have the ability to do their job. At the end of the day, they are the custodian of the city's history and the physical pieces of its history."

The museum has occupied its site since 1922. For decades, its reputation was more as a warehouse that randomly displayed important artifacts along with oddities such as a mummy and a two-headed calf. When the original building was demolished and a new one opened in 1993, exhibits were curated with more attention to historic authenticity.

Today, its permanent galleries trace the history of St. Petersburg by highlighting specific time periods, trends and important moments — bungalow architecture, World War II, the arrival of major league baseball, for example.

Attendance has been unimpressive when compared with nearby museums and galleries. It has averaged about 6,000 people annually for several years. History museums often don't fare as well as those devoted to science and art. The St. Petersburg Museum of History is a block away from the Museum of Fine Arts, with its a comprehensive collection attracting about 100,000 visitors annually, and the year-old Chihuly Collection, with its glamorous installations by international glass star Dale Chihuly drawing about 200,000 people.

Kone acknowledges that the museum has had difficulty for many years attracting visitors and private donations, and that at times, its existence was precarious.

"We're doing everything we can do to revitalize the museum," she said. Leadership St. Pete has provided new signs, landscaping and furniture, the board has been rebuilt with younger professionals and several local organizations have given thousands of dollars recently, Kone said.

"But if there is a question about our existence, no one will want to invest any time, money or energy. I understand the need to come up with a plan that's compatible with all the downtown interests. We want to be part of that, but have never been involved with discussions or had representation," she said.

Ballestra said museum officials were the ones who asked for a new agreement ahead of the expiration of their lease in 2013, the year the Pier is scheduled to be demolished.

"It's a conversation that's just beginning. We are wide open to listen to what they have to say," Ballestra said.

Kone hopes city staffers are sincere in telling her the management agreement is a starting point for negotiations.

"As it is," she said, "I would never sign it."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or wmoore@sptimes.com.

New city contract causes concern for St. Petersburg Museum of History 07/23/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 25, 2011 5:25pm]

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