Flailing museum turns to classes
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- A group of civic leaders originally developed Florida International Museum to plug the gaping hole left in St. Petersburg's downtown after a large department store closed.
For a time, it worked. The trappings of Russian aristocrats brought 602,000 people. The story of the Titanic and its victims brought 830,000.
But the "blockbuster" exhibits were expensive, and though they were followed by disappointing attendance for an exhibition on John F. Kennedy, the museum decided to make the less-costly Kennedy display a permanent fixture.
That has not worked, and the museum expects to post a deficit of more than $400,000 for the year.
Now, the museum is banking on classrooms to help make up the financial slack left by a lack of public fascination with Kennedy's legacy.
Today, the St. Petersburg City Council will consider the museum's proposal to turn over part of the unused space the museum now leases from the city to St. Petersburg College.
The college would pay rent to the museum for 30,000 square feet in the lower level of the museum's parking garage, which it would renovate into classroom space for up to 1,000 students. The rent it would pay to the museum would provide a new revenue stream to help stem the deficits.
Three floors of the main museum building stand empty now, though the museum plans to expand to one of them next year. If the garage lease is approved and works, it could lead to leases for the rest of the empty space to organizations that will complement the museum and add new cultural and educational activities downtown.
"Adding in St. Pete College is a real plus, and I think it fits the concept of what we're trying to get to at the museum," museum president W. Richard Johnston said Wednesday. "In my mind, we need to develop the cultural downtown."
Johnston said the idea is part of a plan that will let the museum break even financially even if it has just 50,000 visitors a year. Johnston is also a member of the college's board of directors.
There is only one real catch with the plan to lease space to the college. In order to use $2.6-million in grant money to finish the space, SPC needs a 40-year lease, which would tie up half of a prime block in the heart of downtown for that long.
But that lease wouldn't affect the main museum building that faces First Avenue N. It would still be subject to the original lease, which has 23 years remaining. Because that leaves the main museum building open for eventual redevelopment, Mayor Rick Baker said he supports the lease.
"You'd rather keep yourself as flexible as you can," he said. "I understand (SPC's) need if they are going to sink a lot of money into it to keep it that long. For them to have a presence in our downtown long-term, I think that's a good thing."
The college has been holding classes in the main museum building this year using temporary classrooms set up at the edge of museum galleries. It offers core curriculum classes such as calculus, general psychology and Spanish. It has also offered classes at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler said the new space might let the college begin museum studies programs. He said he is hopeful of receiving a $2.6-million private donation to match the grant, supplementing the money available for renovations.
USF vice president Bill Heller said that because SPC plans to offer only two-year degree programs at the downtown site, he supports the plan. Kuttler said most students who completed an associate's degree downtown would enroll at USF St. Petersburg to complete their bachelor's degrees, as SPC students who take classes on the USF campus do now.
"We want to stay downtown, and we believe it enhances downtown and USF," he said.
Council member John Bryan said he is leaning toward supporting the lease because it helps the museum without tying up the building for any longer than before.
"Some day the city of St. Petersburg may have a real need for that property down there," Bryan said. "Holding it in trust makes a lot of sense."
Johnston said he looks forward to an exhibition of baseball artifacts from the Baseball Hall of Fame from Cooperstown, N.Y., which will be exhibited at the museum beginning in late 2003. That could draw crowds like the museum's biggest blockbusters.
But he knows to budget for the museum without counting on such successes.
"Cooperstown is one of those things that comes along every three or four years," he said.
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