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Hillsborough okays science museum loan with warning: This is it

Commission cuts $400,000 subsidy request to $250,000 for MOSI and says self-sustaining business plan is needed.
The Museum of Science and Industry at 4801 E Fowler Avenue.
The Museum of Science and Industry at 4801 E Fowler Avenue. [ Times ]
Published Jan. 6, 2021

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners provided their own arithmetic lesson to a museum that touts its teachings in science, technology, engineering and math — $250,000 is better than nothing.

Commissioners told officials from the Museum of Science and Industry on Fowler Avenue that their request to tap a county reserve account would be the final handout until the museum develops a self-sustaining business plan.

“I recognize we have to extend the lifeline now,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen. “The demands that are going to be made on us by many of our cultural institutions are going to be enormous. This is just going to be a limit to what we can do.”

The museum had sought $400,000 from an $800,000 reserve account set up specifically for the facility. Under normal circumstances, the account is used by the museum as a line of credit to assist it during seasonal cash flow fluctuations and it must be repaid within a year.

Wednesday, the commission agreed to alter the repayment schedule, allowing the museum to pay back the county when it projects to become profitable again in 2023. But, on a 5-2 vote with Commission Chair Pat Kemp and Commissioner Mariella Smith dissenting, the board followed the lead of Commissioner Stacy White to cut the allocation request to $250,000.

Kemp, who sits on the museum’s board of directors, had advocated for the full amount.

“It’s too precious and too wonderful of an asset to not have in this community,” said Kemp.

But others were more skeptical. Without a viable business plan, the “reserves are just being used to string along an organization that is destined to fail,’' said Commissioner Kimberly Overman.

The Museum of Science and Industry saw its operating income drop nearly 40 percent amid the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. By the Sept. 30, 2020 end of the fiscal year, income declined to slightly more than $2 million from its 2019 level of $3.36 million.

Its expenses remained steady, at slightly less than $3 million, meaning a $390,000 surplus in 2019 translated into a $925,000 deficit for 2020.

The red ink reversed what had been a three-year trend of operating profitably after the museum closed for four months in 2017 to shed employees, reconfigure its needed space and make other changes.

Related: On the verge of closing for good, MOSI turned a profit in 2017

The museum’s financial projections called for continued, but declining deficits for the next two years before passing the break-even point in 2023.

Hillsborough County already provides $624,000 annually for the museum’s operations, and approximately $200,000 a year for maintenance of the county-owned buildings.

The county had been seeking redevelopment proposals for the 74-acre site, but stopped that process in December amid economic uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Kemp has called a robust Museum of Science and Industry a key part of the effort to revitalize the North Tampa area.

Related: Commission approves advancing MOSI catalyst plan

Separately, the commission also extended the deadline for the Tampa Innovation Alliance, Inc. to complete its business development plan for the Uptown Innovation District, the planned sustainable high-tech quadrant between Interstates 275 and 75 and from Bearss Avenue to Busch Boulevard. There are $2.4 billion worth of projects planned in the area, that includes the Museum of Science and Industry property, the University of South Florida, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and the former University Mall, now rebranded and being redeveloped as Rithm At Uptown.

The county, city of Tampa and the alliance have agreed to share the $2 million start-up costs for the district. The business development plan originally was to be concluded by the end of 2020. Commissioners on Wednesday moved the deadline to Dec. 31, 2021, but Mark Sharpe, executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, said he expected the plan to be completed sometime between April and June.

The pandemic has presented challenges ranging from convening the plan’s working group to “even our assumption on demand for office space and such,” Sharpe told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this week.