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Hillsborough commissioners eyeing Museum of Science and Industry site for “community catalyst”

Staff say a move to downtown’s Water Street is still “up in the air," but efforts are also afoot to keep the museum in the heart of the new Uptown Innovation District near the University of South Florida.

TAMPA — They’ve emptied the exhibition hall and disassembled the dinosaurs, paid off debts and shuttered the on-site elementary school.

But after years of planning for a future in the heart of downtown’s evolving Water Street Tampa development, insiders now say reinventing Hillsborough County’s Museum of Science and Industry may not require a move after all.

Former county commissioner Mark Sharpe, now the “chief potential officer” of the Tampa Innovation Partnership, made a strong case at Wednesday’s county commission meeting for the museum to stay put in its current location, just across Fowler Avenue from the University of South Florida.

“We’re very excited for them to stay where they are – I think that would be the highest and best use for MOSI,” Sharpe said. “MOSI’s gone from red to black, they’re solid now, and they could really be an outreach platform to help us begin to bring the community into our plan and allow people to really see and engage with what it is we’re hoping to build here.”

The museum’s sprawling 74-acre campus is in the heart of an area Sharpe and his partners have dubbed the Uptown Innovation District. The massive and long-awaited redevelopment project began in earnest in 2014 as an effort to attract and connect new investment-worthy commercial, medical and technology-related industries to the research university and its neighboring stakeholders.

County commissioners on Wednesday — and Tampa City Council on Thursday — signed on to a memorandum of understanding that breaks up the cost of developing a guidebook for the community-wide overhaul. The unified business plan is estimated to cost about $2 million.

Related: Hillsborough's next big plan is an innovation district. But what is it?

In a separate vote, commissioners also directed staff to begin drafting a “request for proposals” from master developers who could help transform the museum’s compound into a “community catalyst” for the 19-square-mile Uptown district.

That makeover should attract more high-wage jobs to the area, as well as companies that could help USF monetize its research initiatives, the county’s proposal said. Turning the parcel into a “live-work-play” development could mean building “market-rate and attainable residential housing” on the site, introducing more transit options and adding commercial and retail space.

The property and its five existing buildings could be repurposed into the Tampa Bay area’s first large-scale film studio or provide additional work space for expanding entities like the neighboring H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute.

But commissioners said the proposals must also include options for the museum to continue operating on the site in addition to other tenants currently occupying the county-owned land: The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a county-operated Head Start program and the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.

“I think that the Museum of Science and Industry is an incredible asset to this community and a really important thing for us to be supportive of and grow,” Commissioner Pat Kemp told the board Wednesday. “I really want to know before we start making other arrangements for the property that we’re really thinking about where the Museum of Science and Industry is going to be and what it’s going to be.”

The museum wants those questions answered, too, said its new Chief Executive Officer Julian Mackenzie.

In recent months, he said, the embattled museum’s board of directors has hired a science museum consultant to perform a high-level analysis of the entire operation – from business model to exhibits and attendance to location – and help staff use the findings to create a new strategic plan. That work is expected to be completed sometime in February, Mackenzie said.

“Right now, we’re in the middle of a strategic visioning process and we’ll ... see what that will deliver when we complete it,” he said.

Until then, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his Strategic Property Partners declined to comment on the museum’s involvement with the Water Street Tampa project downtown, a spokesman said Thursday.

“But as a former MOSI board member I can tell you, I think it’s highly unlikely that MOSI will move to Water Street,” Commissioner Ken Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times.

The idea of relocating to the Water Street development was first floated in 2015 when the museum was “very close to shutting its doors for good,” Mackenzie said. A proposed rendering for Water Street showed the museum reopening in a new building sandwiched between Amalie Arena and the Tampa Bay History Center.

Related: Hillsborough County, Jeff Vinik plan to bail out Museum of Science and Industry

But Mackenzie managed to right the museum’s sinking ship when he took the helm in 2017 by drastically downsizing operations. The museum closed for six weeks as Mackenzie slashed staff and sold off many of the exhibits that once populated its 400,000-square-foot exhibition hall, which is now used to store the county’s emergency hurricane supplies. The museum’s physical footprint decreased by 90 percent when it reopened inside the smaller “Kids In Charge” building. And for the first time since 2012, the museum ended the fiscal year with a profit.

Still, that doesn’t mean an 11-mile move to Vinik’s joint development project with Bill Gates’ Cascade Investments is completely off the table. The Vinik Family Foundation has played an active role in the museum’s turnaround financially and has been promised a seat at the table as it develops a plan for the future.

“It’s way too premature for me to say ‘We’re going here. We’re going there,’” Mackenzie said. “The important thing is that we’re not going away.”

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