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Once on the verge of closing for good, MOSI turned a profit in 2017

The IMAX Dome Theatre, now closed, is seen from the inside of the new Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) located at 4801 E. Fowler Avenue in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 18. The museum turned a profit for the first time in five years. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Time
Published Dec. 4, 2017

TAMPA — The Museum of Science and Industry turned a profit this year after operating in the red for much of its recent history.

The north Tampa museum, known as MOSI, made $90,384 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to financial statements provided to the Tampa Bay Times. The museum lost $1.4 million in 2016 and ran a $438,000 deficit in 2015.

The last time the museum finished in the black was 2012, when an exhibit on mummies spiked temporary interest in the struggling science center.

The museum is projecting a small surplus for 2018 as well, said president and CEO Julian Mackenzie, who for the first time acknowledged publicly that at its low point MOSI "came very close to shutting its doors for good."

Next year, the museum will also unveil a new business model focused on taking science learning and experiences to elementary school classrooms with the goal of sustaining the museum while it plots a move to downtown Tampa.

"That's how I see the future of this institution," Mackenzie said of this new plan.

Mackenzie came into the museum as chief financial officer in October 2016 and took over in March after the resignation of Molly Demeulenaere. Since then, he has implemented a turnaround plan that included slashing expenses from $8.5 million in 2016 to $6.1 million last year and full-time employees from about 60 to 21.

He also closed MOSI from Aug. 14 through Nov. 18. Most of its 300,000-square-foot E Fowler Avenue campus remains shuttered as almost all of its attractions moved to one wing of the building during the shutdown.

Nearly 5,000 people visited the new MOSI during its first week, when the science center debuted lower ticket prices and a new digital exhibit, but no dinosaurs or IMAX Dome Theatre.

"We made a promise to the community when it was announced back in August that MOSI would close temporarily to restructure the business and renovate the venue," MOSI board chairman Robert Thomas said in a statement. "Delivering on that promise like we did set the stage for MOSI to continue to do incredible things in the future."

Hillsborough County and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik contributed $2.4 million to help the museum reopen in the renovated, smaller space. The county owns the museum's building and the land it sits on, and in recent years has become increasingly involved in MOSI's management.

County Administrator Mike Merrill has been critical of the museum's financial stewardship in the past but called its current trajectory "terrific." In recent years, the museum has struggled with a backlog of bills, annual deficits, dwindling admission sales and considerable debt, and it often fell on county taxpayers to extend a loan or a handout to MOSI.

Merrill anticipated the county could soon have a better idea of what it will do with the unused parts of the campus, across from the University of South Florida.

By 2022, the entire building could be vacated if MOSI leaders go through with a proposal to relocate to Water Street Tampa, the downtown redevelopment of Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investments. Vinik has offered MOSI a home in the project, though there are so far no updates on where that might be.

Mackenzie said the idea is still in the "visionary phase."

"My focus was, 'Let's get MOSI turned around first,'?" Mackenzie said.

The next phase of that turnaround includes bringing traveling exhibits back to the museum, hosting more events and offering food trucks on weekends.

It also includes partnering with schools, some as far away as DeSoto County, to bring MOSI's science instructors into classrooms. The proposal includes purchasing nine vans for an educational outreach program called MOSI in Motion that will hold 1,350 off-site "science experiences" for students per year.

The new revenue stream will also keep the museum's name on the minds of students and parents while MOSI's leaders work toward relocation. But its main objective is bringing science education to students who can't make it to the brick-and-mortar museum.

Said Mackenzie: "That's what is going to enable MOSI to be an important asset to the community."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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