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Museum lands funds in time to avert crisis

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- With less than $100,000 in the bank at the end of last month, it looked as if the future of the Florida International Museum would be measured in months, not years.

Crisis was avoided when the struggling museum received a $1-million taxpayer gift orchestrated by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Largo Republican, and a $1-million line of credit from a familiar benefactor.

But even with these last minute infusions, the museum's director said there will be trouble ahead unless the city allows it to move out of current headquarters in the former Maas Brothers Department Store and into a more manageable building.

However, the move won't happen soon, and one member of the City Council said she's tired of seeing public dollars used to save a private business.

"When are they going to figure out that they have to live within their means just like every other museum in St. Petersburg?" said council member Virginia Littrell, who serves as the council's liaison with the museum.

The museum has been struggling to stay afloat financially for the past few years. Already experiencing a decline in ticket sales, it was further stung by a drop in tourism after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, said the museum's director, Kathy Oathout.

The $1-million line of credit was extended to the museum by John Galbraith, a retired mutual fund executive who has loaned the museum $8.3-million since it was founded in 1994.

The grant from Young was funded through the Institute of Museum and Library Science and will be used for a fall exhibition from the State Russian Museum.

The money is known as a "directed grant" because it was appropriated by Congress, said Mamie Bittner, an institute spokeswoman. In other words, the museum did not have to go through the institute's rigorous application process.

Bittner said her agency awarded about $29-million in directed grants this year.

Harry Glenn, Young's spokesman, said the congressman has been a longtime supporter of Florida International and brokered a deal with the Smithsonian Institution to showcase some of its exhibits at the museum.

But Littrell thinks the museum benefits unfairly from its high-profile supporters, which include Mayor Rick Baker, the former chairman of the museum board.

"I'm concerned that there are other magnificent museums in the city that could have used this money," she said. "The museum shouldn't be called FIM; it should be called Good Ol' Boy U."

Oathout said the museum has been experiencing growing pains as it struggles to find its niche. Created as a means to rejuvenate downtown, it used to stay open only six months out of the year.

Its first few exhibitions were hits: Treasures of the Czars attracted 602,000 people, and the story of the Titanic brought 830,000.

But after deciding to stay open year-round and develop a permanent collection, the museum started falling on hard times. It posted a $400,000 deficit in 2001.

The city has twice come to the museum's rescue, agreeing to spend $3.9-million to buy the buildings and most of the land underneath in 1997, and buying the rest for $2.1-million in 1999. The city leases the site back to the museum.

In late 2001, the museum proposed moving to the northern half of its current site between Second and Third streets and First and Second avenues N. That would free the southern half of the block for redevelopment.

Under a proposal being considered by the city, the museum would move in with St. Petersburg College, which would build classrooms for 1,500 students downtown.

Oathout said the financial future of the museum depends on moving into the smaller structure. She estimates it would save about $500,000 in expenses.

"Our biggest challenge now is not the exhibitions; it's finding new quarters," she said. "We are a different museum now, and we need to be in a different building."

Ron Barton, the city's economic development director, said appraisals for the property are expected next week. City staff members will then prepare a recommendation on how to proceed with the move.

The City Council would have to approve any change to the museum's lease.

Meanwhile, Oathout said she is trying to budget for the future. The credit line extended by Galbraith will be used for operational expenses, although she hopes they won't have to use the full amount.

Then they are depending on two fall exhibitions to see them through the year: the Russian show and another featuring memorabilia from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Oathout said she is eager to sever ties with the city, which have grown strained.

"We do not belong in a relationship with the city," Oathout said. "We need to be in a building on our own."

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