TAMPA — The Museum of Science and Industry could get a fresh start if the financially challenged science center were to leave its longtime north Tampa home and move downtown, according to a consultant’s report.
ConsultEcon, a Massachusetts-based management and planning firm, told MOSI board members last week that moving the museum to an urban setting would be an opportunity to rebrand MOSI and modernize its exhibits. A move would also allow the museum’s leadership to “right-size the building” for this market.
“What I took away from the report was there is no harm done by relocating the museum,” said county Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who recently joined the MOSI board.
ConsultEcon is a subcontractor brought in by Museum Management Consultants, a company hired to study the implications of moving the 33-year-old science center. Hillsborough County paid $90,000 for the study.
The consultants are not only evaluating whether a move downtown is in the museum’s best interest, but they are also guiding the board toward an overall vision for the museum’s future, said MOSI chief executive officer Molly Demeulenaere.
“This whole exercise is about what is the vision of the science museum,” Demeulenaere said. “If you just take the same exhibits and same programing and put in a different wrapping, you’re not going to see a transformation.”
County leaders revealed in April they had been in discussions with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik about making MOSI part of Vinik’s 40-acre redevelopment plan on the city’s downtown waterfront. Hillsborough County is a major funder of MOSI operations and owns the center’s land and building on east Fowler Avenue.
In a preliminary report given to the museum’s board of directors Wednesday, ConsultEcon highlighted three established science centers — in Dallas, St. Paul, Minn., and Columbus, Ohio — that moved to new buildings closer to their cities’ centers.
The three centers’ saw different financial outcomes from their relocations. The smaller Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas saw a surge in attendance after it opened, while the Columbus Center of Science and Industry struggled, at least initially, in a much larger building.
The report emphasized that the right team of architects, board members, staff and community partners must be assembled at the beginning of relocation planning. The museum relocation team should reach out to the community through research and engagement to ascertain residents’ interests and needs, the report said.
Also important is the buzz factor.
“There is an expectation that the science museum will be something different than what it used to be,” the consultants said, referring to the St. Paul center, “but the museum-center also has to retain some of the best aspects of its past.”
At all three of the relocated science centers, the staff, board and city officials were able to build excitement in the community and an expectation that visitors would see things there they couldn’t see anywhere else.
The Museum of Science and Industry, which opened in 1982, was once considered one of the best attractions of its kind in the country. But the center’s financial position has been slipping since 2012, when it was unable to pay back $250,000 of a $405,000 loan from the county. An audit by Museum Management Consultants in summer 2014 pronounced MOSI’s “overall financial health in decline.”
The audit cited the museum’s inability to pay back loans to the county, as well as a convoluted accounting system that was hard to understand. MOSI also trailed similar centers in fund-raising from the private sector, the audit said.
The way out of this fiscal morass requires new branding and broadening the museum’s appeal to a wider demographic spectrum, including older people, Hispanics and millennials, the report said. Whether by design or evolution, MOSI has come to be seen primarily as a place where married couples take their children.
A new center can be designed to help older people enjoy the experience despite mobility, sight or hearing limitations, the report said. The Perot museum made an effort to expand its audience by holding special events for seniors in the day when kids are in school.
The Columbus Center of Science and Industry started hosting more evening events that attract young adults.
“Just being open for families and kids is not enough … The adult audience is the growth audience,” the report said.
Another insight from the report is that a cutting edge science center doesn’t have to be in an overly large building. The Perot museum, which moved to a new location in December 2012, is 180,000 square feet on six floors, compared to MOSI’s 300,000 square feet.
The Columbus museum, on the other hand, was overbuilt for its market at 320,000 square feet, a fact that contributed to early financial struggles.
“It is possible to build an impactful project on a tight, urban site,” the report said, noting that the Perot museum doubled its annual attendance at the new location.
Demeulenaere, who took over for MOSI founder Wit Ostrenko last summer, said board discussions of the study into the implications of moving will be crucial in reinvigorating what many critics say is a much-diminished museum.
“Moving is always a good opportunity to reinvent the museum, but whether we stay here or move to a new location, we have to reinvent the vision of MOSI,” she said.
“MOSI just suffered through a major change in leadership,” Demeulenaere added. “Now is the time for the board to sit down and provide thoughtful leadership on what do they want their science center to be in the future.”
Demeulenaere said the study should be finished by April.