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Museum explores options with new leader, location

With a new address and new leadership, Great Explorations _ The Hands-on Museum faces challenges that could alter the future of the museum and the downtown waterfront during the next few years.

Last week officials at the museum announced the appointment of a new executive director, Robert B. Patterson Jr., who is leaving his post at the Clarksville-Montgomery County Museum near Nashville, Tenn.

When Patterson reports for duty June 3, he'll have a handful of issues to address.

Great Explorations has also announced ambitious plans for a new facility on The Pier approach within three years. Pending city approval, the museum plans a temporary move in September from its location at 1120 Fourth St. S into The Pier. Officials at the museum said that Great Explorations has no other plan for temporary relocation should the city not approve the Pier lease.

At issue are the appropriateness of both sites and the museum's ability to raise funds for a new facility.

"We think the kind of building we'll propose _ low-rise, open, a people place _ will be very complementary," said Beth Houghton, president of the board of trustees.

But the news already has at least one advocate for an open waterfront saying hands off.

"Not on my waterfront," said City Council member Bea Griswold, who also serves on the city's waterfront subcommittee and a city task force studying development of the Beach Drive area.

Council member Ernest Fillyau is more positive.

"I'm amenable to it," he said. "When you have people coming to the waterfront, you should have entertainment. Children have to have a place to go, too."

Griswold also questions the temporary move to the third floor of The Pier, which must be approved by the council.

"I want to know how it affects the Columbia," she said. "I want to know about the community room."

The Columbia restaurant has leased the third floor for several years as banquet space, and rooms were sometimes used as community meeting areas. Bill Griffith, The Pier's general manager, said that the Columbia chose not to renew its lease, up in July.

"I don't know that it's the best environment for a children's museum," added Griswold, "with bars on the top floor and the first floor."

Virginia Littrell, an advocate of historic preservation who serves on the city's planning commission said, "I think the location will be excellent. I have no problems with it except concerns about parking."

Sam Bond, executive director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, opposite the proposed Great Explorations site on the north side of the Pier approach, agreed.

"It's good because it will bring more people. The bad side is it could get very jammed up. Parking is a big problem for us. We lose business because of our location. We're the only museum in St. Petersburg without parking."

Central to the discussion of the permanent site is the prohibition to build on city-owned waterfront property without a citywide referendum.

The Museum of History building, which appears to be fairly new, is actually the original 1930s structure remodeled and expanded in 1992.

"We didn't have to have a referendum because we were already there," said Mary Wyatt Allen, who led the effort to keep that museum in its original waterfront location. The museum owns the building and leases the land on which it sits. The lease is renewed every five years, said Bond, and "the city forgives the payment."

On the other hand, the Salvador Dali Museum, also on city-owned waterfront property, did face a referendum vote in the early '80s, said lawyer Jim Martin, who spearheaded the effort to bring the art collection to St. Petersburg. The successful outcome of that vote gave the museum a 30-year lease.

Like the Museum of History, the Dali Museum owns its building and leases the land. Marshall Rousseau, executive director of the Dali Museum, says the lease payments are "nominal."

If Great Explorations clears the hurdles imposed by building restrictions, the viability of raising at least $3-million to build a new facility could be formidable, according to leaders in the arts community.

Evelyn Chittenden, executive director of the Arts Center, estimates that at least 17 cultural groups in the Tampa Bay area are in various stages of capital campaigns, including the Arts Center, which has raised $1.2-million toward its $3-million goal.

"It would be a challenge," she said. "It's a huge amount of money and a limited number of people. The same people are being asked."

"We think we can do it," said Houghton.

Great Explorations will close in early September and spend the month relocating. An early October opening at The Pier is expected.

The move from a location that is essentially a single-destination point, with easy access by students in school buses, to a major tourist area with limited parking also could change the mission of Great Explorations.

In moving to temporary quarters at The Pier, it loses about 2,000 square feet of gallery space and all on-site classrooms.

"We will remain committed to our educational mission", said Houghton, adding that the main reason The Pier could be only a temporary venue is because its size precludes classrooms and teaching facilities.

The debate is just beginning, but Houghton is optimistic.

"We consider this a practice run for how we fit with the whole Pier experience," she said.

Judith Powers Jones, executive director of the Pinellas County Arts Council, said, "The bottom line is that we live in a generous community. No matter where Great Explorations ends up locating, if the quality of the mission and leadership and the credibility of the program are high _ and I think they are at Great Explorations _ they will be successful."