Much work remains for museum project
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- It took months of private discussions between Mayor Rick Baker, St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler and the leaders of Florida International Museum.
But the deal unveiled Friday to bring new artwork to the museum, move it a half block north and open up a prime spot of downtown property still requires years of hard work, extraordinary cooperation and good fortune before it becomes reality.
Kuttler and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young stood with Baker on Friday to announce plans to bring artwork from the Russian National Museum to Florida International Museum on a rotating basis. The museum would go to a new home, in a building a few feet to the north that once housed the old Maas Bros. furniture store.
The hulking building where the museum is located now would eventually be torn down. Its 2 acres on First Avenue N would be available for what city officials hope will be a grand mixed-use project that could include offices, shops, apartments or condominiums.
Getting there will be complicated.
"True, we are in a visioning process," City Council member Bill Foster said. "But with this brain trust up here, I'm confident we can succeed."
Included on the to-do list:
The City Council, the museum and St. Petersburg College must agree on a new lease for the northern half of the block.
The building that would eventually be the new home to the museum is a parking garage. Renovating the ground floor to accommodate the museum could take two years, museum vice president Kathy Oathout said. Meanwhile, the museum would stay in its current location, displaying the first Russian artwork early next year and a Baseball Hall of Fame collection next fall.
Space near the museum's new digs would be outfitted as classrooms for St. Petersburg College. That might involve buying a privately owned strip of retail shops that faces Williams Park and building the college a new building, Baker said. Kuttler also envisions a bookstore with a cafe.
The museum would move into the new space. That would leave St. Petersburg with what it had and didn't want 10 years ago before the museum opened: a big, empty building on a key downtown block. Baker hopes it wouldn't stay vacant long.
The city, which owns the museum complex, must buy outright (maybe through condemnation) a few parcels of land under the museum building that it now leases long term.
The city would open the former museum site along First Avenue N to competing proposals from developers. "I don't think my inclination would be to scrape the block," Baker said, adding that the winning developer could tear the building down if their project required it.
The new project must be designed, financed, get regulatory approval and be built.
The city must determine whether it has to pay back some $1.5-million in state cultural facilities grants that have been used to renovate the current museum space. It would try to persuade the state to allow another $500,000 awarded to build out the museum's current second floor to be used to outfit the new location.
It was Kuttler's request last year for classroom space in the museum complex -- not the city's immediate desire to redevelop the current museum site -- that led to the concept being discussed, Baker and Kuttler said. Working out that problem revealed the redevelopment opportunity.
"We first talked about the big building" on the southern half of the block, for classrooms, Kuttler recalls. But city economic development staffers and the City Council wanted to have the half-block available if a developer came along in the future. But the college needed a 40-year lease to use state grant money for renovations.
Both sides began talking about SPC using space in the north-half parking garage building instead. Meanwhile, Kuttler had been leveraging friendships with Russian officials cultivated over the past decade -- including one with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- to talk about borrowing Russian artwork. Young, the Largo Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, accompanied Kuttler on a trip to Russia in early April and sealed the deal.
Finally, museum leaders decided it might be best for the museum to move to the northern half of the block with the college, in a smaller space where it can operate more cheaply. That would avoid an eviction from the south-half building in a few years.
"This property is too valuable" for the museum to keep using, museum chairman Bill Tapp said. Though the museum would lose the money it invested in its current space by moving, it would gain a permanent home.
"It is truly a win-win-win," Tapp said. "The city retains control of this (half block) for development. The college comes in and has a major presence in downtown. The museum goes in there with them, and it solidifies our future."
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