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Jeff Vinik's development team looking at idea of moving MOSI downtown

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's development team has begun exploring the idea of moving the Museum of Science and Industry to Vinik's $1 billion development near Amalie Arena downtown.

"We're really at the very beginning of the conversation," MOSI interim president and CEO Molly Demeulenaere said Monday. "There are some very exciting things that could take place if MOSI had the opportunity to relocate to a more urban area, but you don't just pick up a $120 million infrastructure and move it."

There's no definite or decided plan to leave the museum's home near the University of South Florida on E Fowler Avenue.

Still, both parties are intrigued by the prospect that a move — facilitated by financial help from Vinik — could benefit everyone.

"This will be a vibrant district," said the Lightning's Tod Leiweke so, "Can we help them attract more visitors and more donors and give them a chance to dream?"

Yes, said Leiweke, who is CEO both of Vinik's hockey team and his downtown development company, Strategic Property Partners.

A downtown MOSI has been suggested by many of the experts SPP has consulted with, especially David Dixon and Jeff Speck, the well-known urban planners hired by Vinik to design a pedestrian-friendly, business, entertainment and residential district along downtown Tampa's waterfront.

Those planners talk about the need to attract families, kids and grandparents to the downtown project, not just millennials.

"Great districts feature great institutions," Leiweke said. "We've got two of those now in the Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Bay History Center, and folks outside our group have said that it would be fantastic if you can make something like (MOSI) happen.

"All we've done is raise our hand and say 'MOSI, this would be a great discussion for us to have,' " he said.

Count Hillsborough County and USF among the potential beneficiaries of a move as well.

MOSI sits on 80 acres owned by the county that could be repurposed for a mix of commercial, residential and university uses. Maybe a corporate headquarters could anchor the new development or serve as "the center of a new innovation district," as County Administrator Mike Merrill put it.

Merrill speculated that MOSI would do better downtown, where it would be more convenient for tourists.

"This is such a gift," Merrill said. "It's an opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime, so we ought to seriously look at it."

MOSI has partnerships with USF, but university spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said administrators would continue to work with MOSI if it moved and would "welcome the opportunity to work with Hillsborough County to determine the optimum future use of that property."

But the decision to relocate downtown must be made by MOSI, Leiweke said. Hillsborough County commissioners will have some say as well.

"We know that it has to be at the will of the community," he said, "and it also has to be at the will of the MOSI board."

In a statement, MOSI board chairman Robert Thomas said "The early discussions about incorporating MOSI into Vinik's downtown vision are extremely exciting."

MOSI operates on county land rent-free and likely would need financial assistance to move, but Vinik could help, Leiweke said. Already he's paving the way for USF to build its new medical school downtown.

Backed by Bill Gates' billion-dollar investment fund Cascade Financial LLC, Vinik's team has committed tens of millions to the USF project. Vinik donated an acre of his downtown property — worth up to $12 million — for USF to build a 12-story tower. SPP also pledged to build a medical office building and parking garage next door. Now USF is waiting for the Florida Legislature to come up with the state funding to make that project happen.

Leiweke said that Vinik knows he would have to offer MOSI substantial financial help — perhaps in the form of another land donation, or a monetary contribution — to bring it downtown. But the two sides haven't discussed financial details yet, or even where a new MOSI would go.

"We know that when something like this happens," Leiweke said, "people do need to step forward."

The discussion comes less than a year after a consultant's audit found mismanagement at MOSI that raised questions about its direction going forward. In addition to financial concerns, auditors found the building was underutilized and the museum, which attracts about half a million visitors a year, had strayed from its mission.

Since then, the museum has received a $2 million gift from Florida Hospital, established a partnership with the University of South Florida, paid off its short-term debt, opened a new cafe and received a Bright Lights Community Engagement award from the Noyce Foundation.

Regardless of whether it moves, Demeulenaere said the museum is on much better footing and is positioning itself to be viable moving forward.

"I don't want anyone to think this conversation is happening because MOSI is not doing well and so we're looking to change location because of that," Demeulenaere said. "I don't think there's a ceiling to our success in our current location."

That said, a move is intriguing.

"If you're starting from scratch you have opportunity to build space in a current manner," Demeulenaere said. "So yes, there's the excitement of what could it be if it's brand new and state of the art."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com and Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com.

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