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When Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry moves, will its top executive move with it?

Molly De?meu?le?naere, 38, was named president and CEO of the Tampa museum in June 2015.
Molly De?meu?le?naere, 38, was named president and CEO of the Tampa museum in June 2015.
Published May 2, 2016

TAMPA — The future of the Museum of Science and Industry is decided: It's moving downtown.

The future of its leader is less certain.

Molly Demeulenaere was named president and CEO of MOSI in June 2015 after 10 months serving as interim executive. Almost immediately, her long-term prospects to keep the job were deflated by the museum's most important benefactor, Hillsborough County.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said in July that Demeulenaere was "good enough to keep the lights on," but not to orchestrate a move to Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's redevelopment project. Commissioner Sandy Murman suggested MOSI's board should "take another look" at prospective leaders after they decided whether to relocate.

That decision came last week when MOSI's board voted to begin planning a move. So where does that leave Demeulenaere?

Merrill and Murman now defer to MOSI's new board chairman, Mike Schultz, on those questions.

Schultz said Demeulenaere's future will be re-evaluated along with the rest of the museum, from mission and design to board governance.

"When an organization reinvents itself it has to look at every aspect of its organization," Schultz said. "That includes leadership."

Relocating MOSI from its longtime home in north Tampa will be a complicated and expensive endeavor. Consultants told museum officials that it will take considerable vision and effective management to move and reinvent MOSI in downtown Tampa — not to mention millions of dollars from the private sector to reopen debt-free.

Demeulenaere, 38, acknowledged that she doesn't have experience leading such a massive effort or raising that much money. But she said she would surround herself with people who do.

"Any time that you take on something this size, you don't do it alone," Demeulenaere told the Tampa Bay Times. "We will bring in a team of people that have done this and had success doing this all over the country.

"It won't be Molly saying, 'How are we going to build the next $200 million science center?' "

(A spokesman for MOSI quickly added that there is no estimate yet for what a move or a new museum will cost.)

To usher the museum into a new era, MOSI is leaning heavily on Schultz, who, as president and CEO of Florida Hospital's West Florida Region, has helped build several hospitals. Schultz — not Demeulenaere — is leading the task force of community leaders and industry experts who will shape the relocation and reinvention of the brand.

Murman also expects Vinik to play a significant role in that process. He and his partners at Cascade Investment LLC are planning a $2 billion redevelopment around the Amalie Arena, home to Vinik's hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Vinik took an active hand in attracting the University of South Florida to the development. USF's new medical school will be built downtown because Vinik donated the land, pledged to build ancillary development and lobbied for the state money needed to make the project happen.

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"I've gotten to know Jeff enough that I think he's formulating a plan," Murman said. "I'm just not sure what that is."

When asked about MOSI's current and future leadership, a spokeswoman for Vinik said the Lightning owner also defers to the board on those matters.

Vinik supports MOSI's move downtown and has offered to help the museum. However, it's too early to say what shape that support could take or if it would be similar to the commitments of land, money and infrastructure that Vinik has made to aid USF.

"We will work with MOSI and Hillsborough County in the coming months as they plan what's next for the museum," Vinik said in a statement to the Times, "and want to help them achieve their goal of making the institution one of the finest in North America."

If there are any clues as to how Vinik views nonprofit leadership, they may have been revealed last year at the Tampa Museum of Art.

Penny Vinik, his wife and philanthropic partner, was chairwoman of the search committee that named Michael Tomor as the new executive director of the art museum. Tomor had 21 years of experience working in art museums and he holds an advanced degree in art history.

Downtown Tampa's community of cultural institutions — which MOSI expects to join — similarly boast leaders with extensive pedigrees. Thom Stork, for example, had a 27-year career at Busch Gardens and Sea World before he became president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium in 2002.

And last year, Merrill said he envisioned a downtown MOSI would be led by an executive with "national credentials."

But Demeulenaere's experience is shorter and less traditional. For example, she doesn't have a college degree. She was named vice president of development of MOSI in 2012 after a rocky three-year tenure as executive director the Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone in Sarasota. Before that, she was director of development for the Sarasota County Arts Council and worked as an event planner.

Donors and board members for G.WIZ told the Times that after Demeulenaere left they discovered the museum was on the verge of collapsing. They said she hid the depths of the museum's financial troubles and took a $50,000 line of credit to cover operating expenses without informing the board. Demeulenaere disputed those claims.

G.WIZ closed its doors four months after Demeulenaere's exit. It never reopened.

Demeulenaere took over as MOSI's interim president when the museum's longtime leader Wit Ostrenko retired in 2014.

After a national search, MOSI's board settled on Demeulenaere as Ostrenko's successor. Uncertainty about the museum's future and its recent financial troubles led to an unimpressive slate of applicants, Merrill said last year.

Her time leading MOSI has not been without its problems.

The museum was saddled with significant debt when she took over after years of fiscal mismanagement and poor bookkeeping. But the financial outlook has remained uneven under her watch.

Total unrestricted liabilities have grown from $2.1 million in August 2014, her first month as president, to $2.8 million in March. The museum owes vendors more money now and there's a new $248,000 line of credit on the books, according to financial statements MOSI provides the county. The museum has lost $277,000 since the fiscal year began in October 2015.

Hillsborough County staff discovered that Demeulenaere, while interim president, converted a $400,000 line of credit into a five-year loan to pay off vendors without county approval. That loan, the Times learned, violated an agreement between the museum and the county, which owns MOSI's building and land. Demeulenaere said it was a mistake and she was unaware of the agreement.

But MOSI's board has so far publicly expressed confidence in Demeulenaere during her 10 months as president.

There are also reasons a shakeup may not make sense at this point. In a consultant report provided to museum officials, two museums that underwent successful moves said that consistent leadership was important and that projecting continuity is critical to convincing donors to invest in a significant fundraising campaign for a large capital project.

"She's given me no reason at this point to not have my confidence and support," said County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, Hillsborough's representative on MOSI's board.

"This is going to be a real test by fire and an opportunity to show what she can do."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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