The new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in downtown Miami just joined the seeming legions of local cultural and sports facilities that have run into troubled financial waters and sought help from their go-to cash cows — the taxpayers.
In this case, the glorious $275-million museum immediately — it’s always immediately — needs a $45 million infusion from the county so that it can complete construction. The building, standing just west of the Pérez Art Museum Miami downtown, is about 70-percent done. The county has already spent pretty much all of the $160 million it set aside for construction, but the museum needs more because private donations are behind.
Last year, when the Miami Herald Editorial Board hosted science museum leaders, they sounded optimistic about the museum’s financial outlook: Private donations were coming in, they said, and everything was in place. But, months later, the museum is in full-blown crisis.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez was forced, for the community’s sake, to come up with a solution — quite a feat in an atmosphere in which taxpayers, rightly so, are wary after other cultural and sports institutions have asked them for more, more, more.
But the museum project is in danger of collapse, an unthinkable situation. Monthly payments to contractors are due, otherwise construction will grind to a halt.
“Yes, we could not have done it without the county’s help,” Gillian Thomas, CEO and president of the museum, told the Editorial Board.
Here’s the proposed deal: The county originally promised the museum an annual operating subsidy of $4 million. That money was to be drawn from hotel and convention tax revenue.
The rescue plan calls for the county to give the museum those monies upfront, in a lump sum of $45 million to finish construction. In exchange, the museum must sign an agreement that it will not seek any operating funds from the county for 20 years. Its administrators must also give up some autonomy, restructuring its board of trustees to include seats for county and city of Miami administrators and elected officials.
Michael Spring, a senior adviser to the mayor who oversees parks and cultural affairs and took part in the deal-making, told the Board that the goal was to come up with a plan where “taxpayers will not be impacted at all.” Good thing, because Miami-Dade taxpayers have had enough with these last-minute financial emergencies from private entities that want county help.
The rescue plan requires the County Commission’s approval, and there will be two public hearings in March and April.
Mr. Spring said the county is pushing the museum to make sure private donors who pledged their support early on live up to their financial commitments. Ms. Thomas said that will get easier when an actual building, with a giant aquarium and planetarium, is open. “Once finished, this museum will become a gem in this community,” she said.
No doubt. But getting the museum up and running is just part of the battle. And if securing enough money to finish construction has been a hurdle, then keeping the museum’s doors open and its lights on and its fish fed and its creditors happy is going to be a whopper of a task. Just ask PAMM or the Adrienne Arsht Center how difficult it is to perform the juggling act.
Science Museum administrators must assure the county and its taxpayers that they are up to that task — rose-colored glasses removed. They need a credible plan of action to keep private money coming in as promised. This is a community with large pockets of great wealth — more donors should step up to support this “gem.” And everybody, going forward, must keep their word.