TAMPA — For the Museum of Science and Industry, 2016 was a year of dueling realities.
One was of an institution struggling to make ends meet. Ticket sales dropped 20 percent last year, donations fell well short of annual goals and the museum, known as MOSI, finished its fiscal year with a $1.3 million deficit, according to financial reports obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
The other was of a museum that saw encouraging developments in its plans to move and start fresh in the downtown Tampa project of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment. Notably, Vinik has strengthened his involvement in the museum's reincarnation, bringing his associates to MOSI's board and providing input on key decisions.
While the museum's continuing money woes don't appear to be threatening its prospects for a move, some officials in Hillsborough County — which owns MOSI's building and supports the museum financially — are growing concerned.
"There has to be a different approach," said county Administrator Mike Merrill. "It's never a good thing to lose money. We have a place we want to end up at, which by all accounts will improve their fortune, but in the meantime we have to maintain the brand and control costs."
Museum officials insist MOSI is better positioned now than at any point in recent memory as it prepares for its remaining years in its north Tampa digs.
They slashed the 2017 budget by more than $1 million and decided to close MOSI on Mondays during the school year after decades of remaining open seven days a week. Last week, a new consultant started work on a strategic vision for the museum to remain viable before and after a move.
"We're not perfect, but we're doing the right things," said museum president and CEO Molly Demeulenaere. "We're taking the steps we need to take to make sure we're running in the most efficient way possible, we're working with consultants to really change our business model and then we'll start to look at what does that bridge look like to get us to a new facility.
"Good things don't happen overnight."
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This was supposed to be the year MOSI demonstrated financial stability and independence.
In October 2015, the museum rejected the terms of a $400,000 loan from the county to cover day-to-day operations. Instead, the MOSI board vowed to make it on its own. It voted to increase the fundraising budget to $3.5 million despite years of warnings from the county and consultants that its targets were already unrealistic.
The museum fell short: It brought in $1.9 million in contributions, according to year-end reports.
Demeulenaere said MOSI has readjusted, cuttings its fundraising budget to $2.1 million for 2017, as part of an overall effort to align its forecasts with reality.
"Fundraising is still a little challenging in this environment because we don't have a fully baked plan yet," Demeulenaere said. Donors, she said, are "very excited about (a move) but there hasn't been any million-dollar gifts."
Next week, the new Star Wars film Rogue One will open at MOSI's IMAX Dome Theatre, and the blockbuster is expected to boost museum coffers.
It's the unofficial kickoff to what MOSI officials hope will be a stronger year — one that will bring a major traveling exhibit to MOSI next December, to be announced in the coming months.
Despite its troubles, Demeulenaere said the museum won't ask to dip into its line of credit with the county next year. Some MOSI board members wanted to lobby the County Commission for financial assistance, but Demeulenaere recommended against it.
"The county and MOSI operate separately and we want to keep it that way," she said.
County officials are seeking greater assurances. After museum leaders presented a break-even budget for 2017, Merrill walked away unconvinced MOSI wouldn't need a bailout next year.
Since then, MOSI has updated its budget to finish with a $125,000 surplus.
"It didn't give me confidence that they had solved the problem," Merrill said. "They hadn't really gotten to the place I had hoped."
County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who is in his first year as a MOSI board member, said it has been "frustrating" getting Demeulenaere to provide "accurate details" and to demonstrate "a willingness as a director to make hard decisions."
For example, the ropes course on MOSI's campus on Fowler Avenue is a money-loser, Higginbotham said. Its revenue dropped from $279,000 in 2015 to $216,000 last year.
The museum plans to scale back the course's hours during off-seasons, but Higginbotham said it should be closed or sold off.
"Come up with a game plan that shows they're making real efforts internally," he said. "Come up with a game plan that shows they're going to make a decision about programs that are not producing."
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After announcing to much fanfare in April that it accepted an offer from Vinik to relocate downtown, MOSI has quietly pushed ahead with plans to move and is starting the next stage.
It recently hired Chora, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, to assess the museum's current position, gather community input on MOSI's transformation and ultimately lay out the groundwork for a move.
It will likely be five years before the moving trucks arrive. In the meantime, Vinik is increasingly involved in planning for the future museum, said county and MOSI officials.
He met with consultants from Chora and another finalist before MOSI leaders selected the firm.
During a September conference for science center executives in Tampa, Vinik hosted museum CEOs from across the country at his Firestick Grill restaurant in Amalie Arena, where he presented his vision for downtown Tampa.
In recent months, MOSI also added two board members with close ties to Vinik: Patti Jurinski, Vinik's sister-in-law who previously worked for a Boston cancer research hospital; and Kimberly Madison, the director of administration for Strategic Property Partners, which is the company owned by Vinik and Cascade that's overseeing the redevelopment project.
Strategic Property Partners spokeswoman Ali Glisson said Jurinski and Madison "believe in the importance of a quality science center for our community."
"SPP supports MOSI's goal of becoming one of the finest science centers in the country," Glisson said. "And we're in regular conversations with them as to how we can most effectively play a role."
County officials are encouraged Vinik continues to signal a strong commitment to MOSI's relocation. Outside of wanting to see MOSI succeed, there's an ulterior motive: Hillsborough wants to free up the 80 acres of land the museum currently occupies for economic development.
"We need to get access to that land before the end of the five years," Merrill said. "So how do we transition it to get to where it needs to be?"
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com. Follow @scontorno.