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St. Petersburg leaders growing impatient with Great Exploration's overdue bills

ST. PETERSBURG — Great Explorations earned another month to pay its public debt Thursday even as City Council members expressed growing impatience with the financially delinquent children's museum.

The nonprofit at 1925 Fourth St. N owes the city $30,000 in unpaid tenant fees. It has not opened its books to the city, as required by its lease, or provided a recovery plan.

Initially, museum officials said they were not paying the debt because some of the fees related to the building's original construction were excessive.

But board chairman and state Rep. Bill Heller told city officials in a private meeting Monday that the museum could not afford to pay the fees. He also said the museum has not turned in its annual audit because it could not afford to hire auditors, which could cost up to $20,000, said Chris Ballestra, the city's downtown enterprise facilities director.

"They are committed to not only providing us with those financials, they agree that they owe us the money that they owe us," Ballestra told council members Thursday.

The museum has turned in unaudited financial statements each month through at least November 2009. The public records show the museum had a $171,617 deficit between July 2008 through November 2009.

The museum's fees are used to subsidize the city's adjoining Sunken Gardens attraction.

Museum officials did not speak during the meeting. Executive director Alan Kahle could not be reached for comment.

Public records suggest the museum has experienced two years of financial decline. Its most recent federal tax return in 2008 showed a $205,000 deficit. The museum also took out a line of credit with Whitney Bank last year. Regional bank president Tom Mosley declined to comment on the loan.

Council members said they would give the museum one more month to produce their financial records, but warned they were losing patience.

"We have been waiting on this for a long time," said council member Wengay Newton.

Council member Jeff Danner said he feared the city's other tenants also would seek rent deferments if the city continued to allow Great Explorations to default on its lease.

"It needs to be conveyed that we are going to make a decision with or without them very soon," he said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg leaders growing impatient with Great Exploration's overdue bills 02/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 11:20pm]
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