ST. PETERSBURG — At the city's repository of history, where handmade street maps find a home alongside tissue-wrapped quilts, black and white photographs and myriad artifacts of life past and present, St. Petersburg Museum of History officials worried about losing their prime waterfront spot.
With their lease expiring in 2013 — the very year the Pier faces demolition, to be followed by months of construction — museum leaders approached the city for an early renewal to lock in their choice site. Such an agreement is near, they believe.
But financial issues could stand in the way. A quarterly report from the city indicates the museum owes the city $37,427. While it costs only $1 a year to lease the waterfront property at 335 Second Ave. NE, the museum is supposed to reimburse the city for insurance. Those payments are three years behind, said Bruce Grimes, the city's director of real estate and property management.
The 90-year-old museum is among four tenants on a list of delinquent leases that was presented to the City Council's Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee last week. The museum "has experienced fiscal problems that its board is addressing," a note accompanying the report said, adding that its board had indicated it will ask to have the payment waived.
Council member Karl Nurse said he is sympathetic to the museum's plight.
"Frankly, they have done a pretty significant turnaround, and I think they were close to going under 18 months ago,'' he said.
"I understand they have paid off a lot of debts, ramped up their fundraising and their activities, so I would like to see if we could help them make it."
Joe Griner, vice president of the museum board, said it is no secret the facility has had "some pretty lean times," but praised former president Connie Kone and former trustee Wallie Guthrie Jr. for doing "a fantastic job of keeping the museum going."
"They left us in a position where we could move forward," Griner said.
"I think we have turned a big corner,'' volunteer executive director Joel Cohen said last week.
Specifically, he said, the museum has a revitalized board, with former state Rep. Bill Heller at its helm, and a past year during which membership increased by 40 percent, donations by 45 percent and visitors by 75 percent. The recent exhibit of competing Pier designs helped push the number of visitors up, he said.
The facility, which is trying to attract younger visitors, recently partnered with Great Explorations to host the Wonderful Wizard of Oz Touring Exhibit. A number of exhibits and events have been planned through to 2014, including a celebration this fall to mark the museum's 90th year.
Last week, Cohen showed off the facility's extensive archives, which museum officials hope to put online next year. He pointed to city directories dating back to 1950, paintings by St. Petersburg artist Mark Dixon Dodd and artifacts from the demolished Soreno Hotel. Parasols, dolls, baseball bats, toys, even an old-style hair dryer and a portable typewriter sit on second-floor shelves. There's a military drum from the Spanish-American War.
Downstairs, visitors can examine a two-headed calf or a 3,000-year-old mummy left behind in 1922 by a boat captain who couldn't afford the local port fees. The mummy was accepted as payment. Also on display is a replica of the single-engine biplane, the Benoist airboat, that Tony Jannus flew in the world's first scheduled commercial flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa.
As he walked through the building, Cohen spoke of the improvements made by last year's Leadership St. Petersburg Class, which adopted the museum as its project. Members of the class raised more than $42,000 in cash and in-kind donations, created a new courtyard, installed a new sign, upgraded the upstairs archives room and outfitted it with new computers.
Cohen, a third-generation Tampa native who moved to St. Petersburg a few years ago, is optimistic about the museum's prospects.
"I personally have a passion for history, and I think the history of St. Petersburg is so rich and needs to be preserved,'' he said. "I believe that we can make history interesting and fun and educational.''
Later this year, the museum plans to launch a capital campaign to continue its work. Next year, Cohen said, it will hire a paid executive director.
With the museum's new vitality, it's important that a lease be finalized for the spot it has occupied since 1922, Griner said.
"The area is perfect for our mission,'' he said of the site where not-too-distant neighbors include the Museum of Fine Arts, the Chihuly Collection and Dalí.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.