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Hillsborough commissioners quarrel over using MOSI land for USF football stadium

Speculation about the future of MOSI’s Fowler Avenue site  intensified after Lightning owner Jeff Vinik expressed his desire to bring the science museum downtown to help anchor his project.
Speculation about the future of MOSI’s Fowler Avenue site intensified after Lightning owner Jeff Vinik expressed his desire to bring the science museum downtown to help anchor his project.
Published May 7, 2015

TAMPA — There are no concrete plans yet to move the Museum of Science and Industry, but the fate of its current site is already becoming a political football.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan on Wednesday admonished those salivating at potential uses for the county land that's home to MOSI. In the middle of his cross hairs was the University of South Florida, which Hagan believes covets the location for a long-desired football stadium.

Hagan said the university shouldn't begin looking for a stadium until it proves its football team can better fill Raymond James Stadium, its current home.

"I know how special it is to have a stadium on campus, and I fully support looking for ways to have that occur, but let's not put the cart in front of the horse," Hagan said. "In my opinion, their performance and attendance must drastically improve before we can seriously talk about a stadium."

That drew scorn from Commissioner Victor Crist, who said Hagan's ongoing efforts to bring the Tampa Bay Rays to Hillsborough County undermined his argument.

"As far as athletics, well, that's not my venue, but one thing I do know is Mr. Hagan, you've been pushing for baseball, and frankly they haven't filled their seats, either," said Crist, a USF alumnus. "So the argument that USF football has empty seats I think is an unfounded one."

Hagan retorted that Crist was right: "Athletics is not your purview."

USF is in the middle of a feasibility study to assess whether to build a football stadium, on campus or elsewhere. When asked about the potential for a facility at the MOSI location, university spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez would only say that USF "regularly reviews options and explores opportunities on what projects are in the best interest of the institution."

"USF remains proud to play home games at Raymond James Stadium," she added.

Since Lightning owner Jeff Vinik expressed his desire to bring MOSI downtown to help anchor his redevelopment project, speculation about the future of the museum's existing location has intensified. The county owns 80 acres beneath and around MOSI.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said last week that he hopes to bring a corporate headquarters to the location, but he also said the county has had conversations with USF about potential uses as well. The Tampa Innovation Alliance run by former County Commissioner Mark Sharpe also is eying the location as a hub for new industry.

On Wednesday, commissioners voted to support dialogue between Vinik and MOSI's board, though Commissioner Les Miller cautioned that the conversations are very preliminary.

"Let me make it perfectly clear: There are no moving vans at MOSI," Miller said.

Still, many on the board said a move downtown makes sense for MOSI. There, MOSI could attract more tourists, proponents hope.

"The synergies that we create should this ultimately occur will transform Tampa Bay," Hagan said. "It's an exciting possibility and one that I hope materializes."

The museum has run into financial troubles and last year a consultant hired to audit the museum raised concerns about its mission and direction.

MOSI interim president and CEO Molly Demeulenaere told commissioners Wednesday that the museum is on better footing. Museum operators are on track to repay outstanding debt and they have not tapped into their line of credit at all this year, Demeulenaere said.