A new consultant's report about Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry reads like a premature autopsy. While praising the museum's mission and national standing as an educational institution, the report makes clear that MOSI cannot survive if it continues along its current path. This should be a wakeup call for area leaders and MOSI supporters to bring new vision and leadership to a cherished regional asset.
The report, which Hillsborough County ordered in February in the wake of concerns over MOSI's finances, offers a mixed picture of an institution that serves a unique role in the bay area. The nonprofit, which operates rent-free on county property on Fowler Avenue in north Tampa, has struggled financially "with negative cash flow" for years. "MOSI's overall financial health is in decline," the consultants wrote, thanks to an "unstable" balance sheet over the past five years and a revenue base too dependent on admission fees and government grants rather than sponsorships and corporate support. The findings paint a sober picture of the state of affairs, but also a road map for moving ahead.
The museum has ample space, a good location, strong name identity and local government support, and a unique mission in the cultural market. What it needs is fresh direction and a robust plan for connecting with donors, adults and the high-tech industry.
MOSI needs to enhance the visitor experience. The report aptly noted that by targeting exhibits to children, MOSI has ceded the adult market to other competing attractions, limiting its appeal and ability to attract philanthropic support. Many of its displays are dated, and some features — such as zip lines — have nothing to do with science, technology or MOSI's educational mission.
MOSI board chairman Robert Thomas has worked quickly in recent months to address many of the shortcomings, and MOSI leaders will meet again today and Friday to consider several solid reforms. Creating a paper trail that makes MOSI's finances more transparent would help. So would reducing the unwieldy size of the governing board, which numbers about 50.
Thomas' leadership and the pending retirement of MOSI chief executive Wit Ostrenko offer an opportunity to bring a fresh look to the museum and a new approach for stabilizing its financial base. The board should move quickly to find a successor for Ostrenko and to put this new management team in place. The county also needs to continue playing a supportive role. MOSI is a valuable asset for millions in the region, and it could play a bigger part in educational and job-development opportunities. But it needs to be more focused and ambitious. The county should help keep it on track.