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City will step in to rescue museum

Amid reports that the highly touted Baseball as America exhibit is failing to attract visitors, the City Council agreed Thursday to help out the financially troubled Florida International Museum one last time.

The Council voted 6-2 to let the museum move out of the former Maas Brothers Department Store, which it leases from the city, and into a smaller annex on the north side of the property that museum managers say they can better afford. The city also will forgive $1-million in unpaid rent.

The deal was just the latest in a series of subsidies the city has given the struggling museum since it was founded in 1994. In the past 10 years, the city has poured more than $6-million into the museum at Second and Third streets and First and Second avenues N.

Most council members said $1-million was a small price to pay to sever ties with the museum.

"I do think the city's level of involvement in the museum needs to end," said council member Jay Lasita, who voted to approve the deal. "But I don't want Florida International Museum to end. That's why I'm supporting this."

The museum had less than $100,000 in the bank last February when it received $1-million in federal money arranged by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, and a $1-million loan from longtime benefactor John Galbraith.

Museum officials said they need to move out of the 215,000-square-foot Maas Brothers building with its high overhead in order to stay afloat. They also expect a major revenue boost from the Baseball as America exhibit, which arrived in December.

But so far, the collection of baseball memorabilia has failed to draw a crowd. Only 18,000 people have visited the exhibition so far, according to Kathy Oathout, the museum's executive director.

The museum currently has several exhibitions on display in addition to Baseball as America, including Russian Odyssey.

Despite the slow start for Baseball, Oathout said she still hopes to meet the museum's goal of 100,000 visitors before the exhibit leaves in early March.

"Our projections may be high, but we feel that we've done the advertising that we need to do," she said.

Under the agreement approved Thursday, the museum will share the annex building with St. Petersburg College, which had been searching for a location for a downtown campus. The city will lease the annex to the college for $1-million. The college will then sublease space to the museum.

Two council members, Rene Flowers and Virginia Littrell, voted against the deal. Littrell said she felt the museum had already consumed too much public money.

But council member Bill Foster said allowing the museum to move will be better for taxpayers because it will allow the city to sell the Mass Brothers parcel. A similar sized property sold for $4-million in June 2001.

Mayor Rick Baker, the museum's former chairman, originally proposed forgiving the entire $1.35-million debt the museum owes the city, but council members balked. They required the museum to repay $350,000 in unpaid rent. The museum has agreed to pay $6,000 a month or $1 per ticket until the debt is paid.

Baker praised the deal, saying the value of the Maas Brothers property will likely increase over the next three years. It is also expected to add millions to the city's tax rolls.

Attendance

NEW YORK

American Museum

of Natural History

March 16, 2002 _ Aug. 18, 2002

215,000 visitors

LOS ANGELES

Natural History Museum

of Los Angeles County

Sept. 22, 2002 _ Dec. 31, 2002

155,000 visitors

CHICAGO

The Field Museum

Feb. 8, 2003 _ July 20, 2003

215,000 visitors

CINCINNATI

Cincinnati Museum Center

Aug. 16, 2003 _ Nov. 9, 2003

30,000 visitors

FLORIDA

Florida International Museum

Dec. 13, 2003 _ March 6, 2004

18,000 visitors, as of Jan. 22

_ Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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