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Children's museum considers new site

The director of Kid City envisions a world-class center downtown.

By REBECCA RICHARDS
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003


DOWNTOWN -- In David Penn's vision for a new children's museum, 5-feet-tall books read excerpts aloud, pronouncing words phonetically. Kids burn CDs of words or music and take lessons on provided instruments. Or they adopt a tree or star or manatee to learn responsibility.

Penn's dream extends to the museum's location: the first floor of the parking garage next to the St. Pete Times Forum.

The idea -- though in its infancy -- intrigues both city and Times Forum officials. Mayor Dick Greco wants to pursue the plan, but a mayoral election in March could change that.

Charlie Miranda, chairman of Tampa's City Council and a candidate for mayor, said the idea sounds promising provided the public doesn't have to pay for it. Monday was the first time he had heard about it, he said.

"The idea in general is good," Miranda said. "But I'm not interested in subsidizing private enterprise."

The city owns the 1,500-space parking garage, and the Times Forum owns leasing rights for the 23,000 square feet of space on the first floor, which now is storage.

The Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team operates the Times Forum.

Sean Henry, chief operating officer for the Times Forum and the Lightning, said a new downtown museum would complement the Florida Aquarium, Tampa Convention Center, TECO Line Streetcar and Channelside shops. But he said it's too early to go beyond that.

"We don't want to say something that will hurt or hinder us," he said.

Among issues to be resolved are how much parking would cost and where the revenue would go. There's also the question of whether a museum is the best use of the space, which was intended for stores.

"That's leasable space. It could become a valuable commodity," said Renee Williams, the city's director of arts and cultural affairs and a museum board member.

Nevertheless, she supports the concept of a new children's museum, which would replace the Children's Museum of Tampa on North Boulevard. "If we can get there is a tough question," Williams said. "I hope we can."

So does Penn, the museum's executive director.

Hired by the board in August to build a "world-class children's museum," Penn didn't dream up the Channel District location by himself.

In a recent questionnaire sent to 500 parents of children in schools and youth centers, the Channel District area came up as the No. 1 desired site.

"The location would be good for me," said Jennifer Weinman, of South Tampa, who answered the survey at her son's preschool. "A lot of families know the area."

Other spots noted on the survey were downtown next to the Tampa Museum of Art, the vacant federal courthouse, the University of South Florida and the Westshore area.

The existing children's museum, known as Kid City, is near the Lowry Park Zoo. The zoo is planning to add an elephant exhibit, which could take up part of the museum's parking lot, Penn said.

Penn, 36, who came to Tampa from the Orlando Science Center, hopes to announce a new museum site in the spring and kick off a fundraising campaign.

Museum volunteer Jim McCarthy, a commercial real estate broker, has been scouting possible sites and introduced Henry and Penn. Trent Green, an architect and museum board member, will do initial renderings, Penn said.

A stone plaza that joins the Times Forum and the parking garage would be ideal for art festivals or exhibits, Williams said. Children also could go to the museum while their parents are attending Times Forum games or events, Penn said.

"The possibilities are limitless," Williams said.

* * *

Kid City is hosting a mayoral candidate forum from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the museum, 7550 N Blvd. Candidates will speak for five minutes then answer questions from families and children. Also that night, the museum will open three permanent exhibits: the New City Hall, the Little Red Music Schoolhouse and an Art Gallery. The events are free and open to the public. Maggiano's Restaurant will provide food.

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