When Great Explorations and St. Petersburg city staff sit down next week to discuss the children's museum's outstanding debt to the city, both sides should take a breath. At stake is a valuable community resource, and it's in everyone's interest to see the museum regain its footing. That is likely to require compromise on all sides.
Great Explorations has struggled off and on since 2003, when it greatly increased its debt to move from cramped quarters at the Pier to an 18,000-square-foot space alongside Sunken Gardens. Within two years of the move, the museum sought flexibility in paying its lease. By 2008, the museum was on track with the city only to fall behind again.
Exactly why the children's museum faltered on its lease obligations — the city says it's owed $30,000 — in the midst of its greatest revenue year isn't clear. Board members acknowledge that the museum, enjoying huge gains in donations, grants and attendance, may have expanded programming too aggressively. In the past year, they have replaced the executive director and laid off a dozen employees — but members won't say more about what led to the missed payments, citing confidentiality agreements. The museum has also failed to produce a required audit of its books for the city.
Such ambiguity doesn't inspire confidence from a landlord. What is clear is that the museum's board is seriously looking to right the ship. The museum is on the verge of hiring an auditor, whose fee will likely be covered, at least initially, by a board member. The board contends the museum's fortunes will improve, particularly when the economy rebounds. And Whitney Bank, which extended the museum a line of credit, has also been cooperative, said the museum board chairman, state Rep. Bill Heller of St. Petersburg.
Heller said there has to be a way to satisfy the debt with the city in a fashion that won't pull the museum under. He hopes to renegotiate the museum's lease, which now gives the city a percentage of admission fees. He contends no other cultural institution in the city has such an expensive clause in its contract.
The City Council needs to keep an open mind even as it acts as a good steward of the taxpayers' dollars. Resolving the situation is likely going to require compromises by the museum, the bank and the city. Great Explorations has delighted children for more than two decades. Threatening its future over $30,000 debt would be a disservice to current and future generations.