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Museum buys time, caution

Warning of the city's financial burdens, Mayor Pam Iorio extends a deadline for art backers to secure a construction loan.

By JANET ZINK
Published March 25, 2005


TAMPA - Mayor Pam Iorio on Thursday gave museum leaders more time to assemble all the financial documents for a new $76-million building.

But she cautioned that the city is already burdened by debts, and cannot afford to take on any more. In February, Iorio gave Tampa Museum of Art leaders until noon Thursday to secure a construction loan and get written commitments showing they had enough private support to build and run the museum without more taxpayer money. The city has committed $30-million to build the museum and $2-million a year to run it.

With only a few items outstanding, Iorio extended the deadline until noon next Wednesday.

"We did receive a lot of documents," Iorio said. "We are giving the Tampa Museum of Art group every opportunity to make this work because they have worked on this for so many years and raised so much money."

If they can't meet the deadline, she said, she'll stop the project and present an alternative plan for a new museum.

So far, museum officials have raised $2.4-million in cash, $29.3-million in pledges and $28.9-million in personal guarantees from 18 individuals to build the museum. Museum supporters also say they have $9-million in personal guarantees from 27 people to cover operating reserves Iorio wants in place through 2015.

At a news conference Thursday, Iorio said she still needs legally binding documents from the guarantors, many of whom are museum board members.

"If individuals are personally liable for shortfalls, they will have every incentive for the museum to operate in an entrepreneurial way," Iorio said.

The museum's bank, JPMorgan Chase, has also said it will provide only a $30-million loan. The museum needs $40-million. Iorio said she needs to see proof that there's another bank willing to provide the remaining $10-million.

"These are not insignificant issues," Iorio said.

Museum leaders said their efforts have been slowed by the bank. JPMorgan Chase didn't give them the personal guarantee paperwork until Tuesday, and the documents were flawed.

"It's been a huge disappointment to us that the bank has not been more responsive, knowing our deadline," said museum director Emily Kass.

"The hardest thing to get nailed down is the agreement with JPMorgan," said museum board chairwoman Cornelia Corbett.

It's a complicated financial arrangement that involves multiple banks all over the country.

"They've never seen anything like this," she said. "They didn't even know how to write it."

Iorio said she has made strong demands of museum leaders because the museum has only a $2-million endowment. A consultant's report released in November said the museum needed a $10-million endowment to help fund a $6-million operating budget.

"That's when we concluded that we had to protect the taxpayers," Iorio said. "I do have a real concern about its ability to operate in the black."

Other public facilities, such as the Florida Aquarium, which gets an $850,000 operating subsidy and $4-million- to $6-million-a-year debt service support from the city, are a drain on Tampa's budget.

Major public projects, she said, need to be structured to protect taxpayers.

"This is the way the city should do business," she said. Future mayors, she said, would likely "be glad that we devised this."

If previous administrations had taken her approach, she said, "maybe the city's bottom line would look better."

The mayor spoke bluntly about the city's finances, describing a fiscal bind that gives her little flexibility. The city's property tax base grew by 7.5 percent last year, but after paying debt service and other obligations for major projects like the aquarium and Centro Ybor, there was only $6-million in new money in the city's general fund for things like parks, code enforcement and drainage.

"We had to leave a lot of needs on the table," she said of the most recent city budget. The City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to fund and provide city land for the museum. A vote needs to take place that day to lock in the construction price, which is only guaranteed until April 11.

If the museum issue does go before the City Council, the seven members will each receive a stack of background materials "about a foot high," said City Attorney David Smith.

The City Council Thursday morning scheduled a discussion meeting for 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd., so they can be briefed on the issue well in advance of the vote.

"We have all had this vision for many, many years," council member Linda Saul-Sena said. Some museum leaders have had the vision for decades, she said.

"We are so, so close," she said. The special meeting will provide an "incentive to get to "yes,' which is what I think we all want."

Never before in Tampa's history, Saul-Sena said, has the community raised so much money for a cultural project.

"I know it will come to fruition," council member Mary Alvarez said. "It just has to. All the stars are aligning."

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at

813 226-3401 or jzink@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 25, 2005, 01:00:17]


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