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With downtown move official, major donor is suing the Museum of Science and Industry

A lawsuit against the Museum of Science and Industry filed by a former board chairman and major donor is proceeding after museum officials decided to move near downtown Tampa.
A lawsuit against the Museum of Science and Industry filed by a former board chairman and major donor is proceeding after museum officials decided to move near downtown Tampa.
Published Apr. 23, 2016

TAMPA — The Museum of Science and Industry generated a lot of buzz this week after its leaders announced plans to move to downtown Tampa.

Don't count former museum board chairman Robert Lang among those celebrating the news.

The decision to close MOSI's existing facility in north Tampa means Lang will proceed with a lawsuit he filed against the museum over violating the terms of a $1.4 million donation he made to MOSI in 2004, he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Lang's lawsuit, filed in December, alleges that a move downtown would violate an agreement to name a wing of MOSI after his deceased wife, Whitney Lang, for at least 20 years. Under the agreed-upon terms, the wing was supposed to house and facilitate Head Start operations for early childhood learning programs.

The Lang Center for Learning would be a shell of itself in a smaller, downtown location, Lang said. He's seeking reimbursement of his donation.

"I sat on the board there for 22 years and I gave a lot of my heart and soul to MOSI," Lang said. "You have a new group of board members, new people running downtown, new commissioners, and all the new people want new things and they just dump the old things by the wayside, so that's where we are.

"I do think it's going to affect (the Lang Center)," he said. "And so I'm going to move forward with (the lawsuit)."

Lang's agreement with MOSI also promised $500,000 to the museum from his estate after he died.

In January, MOSI filed a motion for a stay, claiming Lang's lawsuit was premature because leaders had not decided to relocate.

But on Tuesday, MOSI's board of directors voted to take the first steps that would eventually close the museum's location near the University of South Florida and reopen near the development project of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment.

Nothing is final. It will take a year for a task force that MOSI launched Tuesday to plan the move, and it will likely be at least three to five years before a new museum opens near downtown.

MOSI declined to speak about the specifics of the lawsuit, citing pending litigation. A hearing is set for May 24.

"We take our donor-restricted funds very, very seriously," said MOSI president and CEO Molly Demeulenaere. "We are continuing to work with Bob Lang and his attorney to come to an agreement."

Lang, 70, of Temple Terrace is the chief executive of Lang Environmental Inc. His family has a long connection to MOSI. He served as vice chairman of the MOSI board and was appointed chairman in 2008. His wife, Whitney Lang, was active at the museum until she died of cancer in 2003.

He married his second wife at sunset atop the MOSI Imax Dome Theatre, he told the Tampa Tribune in 2008.

His son, Chris Lang, left MOSI's board in 2015 after serving as chair of the governance committee.

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Robert Lang is the only donor who has publicly complained about a move downtown. But during a presentation at Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting, it was hinted that there might be others.

"I know a number of the donors who have recognition at the existing building, and I understand some of their feelings," Commissioner Victor Crist said. "We're sensitive to that and we'll be able to work with (MOSI) and with them to ensure there is a smooth transition."

The commission, which has helped prop up the museum during its recent financial struggles, welcomed a move downtown and promised a new facility would be a nod to MOSI's heritage.

"We recognize the rich history, the foundation of the people who got it started," Commissioner Al Higginbotham said. "They will not be lost, they will not be overlooked or ignored in this next step."

Lang said he hasn't considered whether a move downtown would benefit the museum.

"I'm too far away to make any value judgment," he said. "The time I sat on the board there it was very much a working museum. We became the largest science center in the southeast and we did so many good things for so many people and helped so many kids who came through the museum."

As for others who made contributions to the museum, Lang said he hasn't heard from them about his lawsuit, but he noted MOSI opened its doors on Fowler Avenue three decades ago and many of the people who made it happen are no longer alive.

Said Lang: "Dead people don't speak."

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