Wit Ostrenko, president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry, is retiring from the Tampa institution he has led for more than 25 years.
Ostrenko, 67, told directors during a recent board meeting of his decision to step down within the next 18 months. His current contract expires Dec. 31, 2015.
Although the nonprofit museum has faced recent criticism over both strained finances and operations, Ostrenko said that didn't factor into his timing. He said he wanted to pass the baton to someone to lead MOSI through its next big expansion.
"I've been able to build the eighth-largest science center. The next big impact with MOSI will take 12 to 15 years," Ostrenko said in an interview Tuesday with the Tampa Bay Times. "I want them to hire someone who, when they make the big ask (for donations), they can carry it through."
Ostrenko arrived at MOSI in 1987, just five years after its founding. Before him, the museum had already gone through three directors.
Over the next 26-plus years, MOSI expanded from 11 acres to 73, which makes it the largest science center in the southeastern United States. The museum's hub is a 300,000-square-foot facility that includes Florida's only IMAX Dome Theatre.
While Ostrenko has been at the helm, MOSI raised $68 million in two major capital improvement campaigns and spent an additional $70 million providing science programming and other support for the general public. Sometime this year, its total attendance will pass the 15 million mark, he said.
"One of Wit's greatest attributes is his unique ability to transfer his imagination, passion and enthusiasm for science to countless individuals throughout our Tampa Bay community and beyond," MOSI board chairman Robert Thomas said in a statement.
The museum, which operates on a $10 million budget, has recently been in the spotlight for less flattering reasons.
MOSI receives about $600,000 annually in state gambling money that flows through Hillsborough County, which also typically pays an extra $300,000 to $500,000 toward maintenance. MOSI asked for a loan from the county last year when it still owed on a loan from the prior year. That raised concerns about the museum's finances.
Separately, state health inspectors in March found a bug infestation inside MOSI that prompted inspectors to close the museum's cafe for nearly four hours on March 12.
MOSI management said the closure was an isolated incident, and the bug problem was corrected. But Hillsborough County commissioners called for a deeper investigation.
The county attorney is reviewing Hillsborough's contract with MOSI, which provides educational programming for thousands of children each year. The county also contracted with Museum Management Consultants Inc. to perform an organizational assessment.
The next step is identifying strategies to improve the museum, county Administrator Mike Merrill said.
"The county is supportive of any efforts the board of directors and MOSI undertake for a succession plan and for looking at how the institute moves forward," he said.
Merrill acknowledged the work Ostrenko has done in his role at MOSI.
"I think the observations in the media release from MOSI are accurate concerning his legacy and all the work he's done to improve the community," Merrill said.
Ostrenko acknowledged "the 2013 fiscal year was not kind to us." But he insists that bigger and better things are yet to come.
"For nearly 30 years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of directing the efforts of MOSI, and sharing my passion of science and learning with nearly three generations of scientists, educators and museum professionals," he said. "I am happy with where we began and where we are today. The next generation belongs to a new CEO with new ideas and new passions for the future of MOSI and our community."
Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]