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

Guests leave through the front doors at the Museum of Science and Industry on Nov. 6, 2015 in Tampa. Hillsborough County is preparing to bailout MOSI, which owes vendors and creditors $2 million. ZACK WITTMAN   |   Times

Guests leave through the front doors at the Museum of Science and Industry on Nov. 6, 2015 in Tampa. Hillsborough County is preparing to bailout MOSI, which owes vendors and creditors $2 million. ZACK WITTMAN | Times

Published Jun. 10, 2017

TAMPA — Hillsborough County is preparing a seven-figure bailout of the beleaguered Museum of Science and Industry, and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is going to help.

The museum, known as MOSI, owes more than $2 million to vendors, banks and creditors and doesn't have the money to pay them.

Additionally, MOSI leaders need $350,000 to bankroll their plan to shutter part of the museum's building and move operations to a smaller wing of the 80-acre north Tampa campus. Downsizing operations is expected to save money, but in the meantime, they need cash to close the old building and reopen as a smaller science center.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times this week that the county is inclined to pay off those bills and loans and provide the startup money. MOSI will not have to pay back the county.

Key to the financial rescue is Vinik, who has offered to split the cost of the debt with the county in hopes of keeping the museum afloat as it awaits relocation to his downtown Tampa redevelopment project. His share would be about $1 million

Vinik declined to comment Thursday on the details of his contribution, but he confirmed that his charity, the Vinik Family Foundation, has "agreed to share in the costs of preserving this community asset during its transition period."

"We look forward to working with all stakeholders in trying to build a great new MOSI in downtown Tampa," Vinik said.

Putting the museum in bankruptcy was considered, Merrill said. However, they ultimately decided MOSI, already in significant decline, couldn't recover from that kind of negative publicity.

And as the owner of MOSI's building and land, Hillsborough officials were concerned creditors and disgruntled vendors might have showed up on the county's doorstep asking to be reimbursed.

They also discussed closing the museum entirely until the move downtown, but MOSI would have had to pay back a $2.5 million state grant it received to host an exhibit.

"At that point we had three options, none of which were great," Merrill said. "We chose the one that we thought was the best of the worst.

"We debated back and forth: 'Does MOSI still have a brand that has value?' And we concluded that it does because it still has a strong following and it has a legacy. More importantly for Jeff Vinik, he had to feel comfortable that there was enough of a brand value that it could transition downtown. So that's why we rejected bankruptcy or just shutting it down."

The financial rescue of the museum comes less than two years after MOSI leaders rejected the terms of a $400,000 loan from the county and instead vowed to retire the nonprofit museum's debt through charitable donations.

But fundraising fell well short of goals, a common theme in recent years. Meanwhile, admission sales plummeted, deficits grew, and vendors remained unpaid.

Asked why the museum was now willing to accept financial help, MOSI board chairman Robert Thomas said it was "just a normal evolution to figure things out."

"Things change," he said.

Merrill has been reticent in the past to extend financial aid unless the museum made significant concessions, such as county oversight of its finances. But he said consultants have vetted the museum's plan and leaders are finally making tough decisions.

MOSI owes vendors about $1.15 million, according to a presentation by museum leaders at this week's County Commission meeting. The museum must also reimburse the company that took over the MOSI restaurant — after cost overruns and poor health inspections — for $300,000 in improvements made to the cafe. The cafe is closing with the rest of the main building in August.

The museum also owes a $372,000 bank loan. Merrill acknowledged that loan was taken out by former president and CEO Molly Demeulenaere. The Times reported in 2015 that Demeulenaere borrowed that money without approval from the county in violation of a previous agreement.

Demeulenaere resigned earlier this year.

To pay off MOSI's debt, the county will tap into money it receives from the state's gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe as well as the cultural assets grant program. That program requires participating institutions to match the grant. That provision will have to be waived, Merrill said.

Still needed is the approval of the County Commission. A vote could some as soon as the next board meeting on June 21.

Though symbolic, commissioners offered a unanimous vote of confidence Wednesday in the plan by museum leaders to turn around MOSI in its waning years on E Fowler Avenue near the University of South Florida.

The museum announced in May it would close at the end of summer and reopen only the Kids In Charge wing in November. A move to the downtown development project of Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investments is likely still five years away.

By slashing expenses, cutting staff and downsizing from 300,000 to 40,000 square feet, the museum should operate at a slight profit, chief financial officer Julian MacKenzie said. Even if there are losses, they should be much more manageable because day-to-day operational costs will shrink with the smaller footprint.

"It is a bailout," Commissioner Sandy Murman acknowledged. "They have a lot of bills."

But she said she was encouraged by Vinik's contribution and his increased involvement in the museum's operations. The Vinik Family Foundation will have a seat at the table as the museum plans its next steps and two of Vinik's close associates have joined MOSI's board.

"It's a new day," Murman said.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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