Miami-Dade County

Frost science museum CEO retires, says listing ship has been righted

adiaz@miamiherald.com

Frost Museum of Science president and CEO Gillian Thomas, recruited to oversee development of the institution’s $305 million new home in downtown Miami, won’t be on the job to see the ambitious but financially stressed project completed.

Thomas, 72, said Wednesday that she is retiring effective Friday after 13 years at the helm of the Frost. She will be replaced by her second-in-command, Frank Steslow, who has served as the museum’s chief operating officer since 2008.

Her departure was widely expected after a severe financial crunch late last year left the museum short of money to finish construction, necessitating a bailout from Miami-Dade County and prompting a dramatic shake-up of the Frost’s board of directors. Though Thomas had been mulling retirement for “a couple” of years — she said she originally thought she would be done with the new museum by the time she was 65 — she said she had put it off until she felt sure the project was on track to be finished.

And that’s happening, she said. Construction on the science museum, planetarium and aquarium is fully funded thanks to a $45 million county grant, a Northern Trust bank loan of nearly $40 million, and $20 million worth of trims to exhibits and features. The complex is scheduled to be done at the end of this year — the fish will be going into the tanks as early as October to give them time to acclimatize — with a hoped-for public opening early in 2017.

“What’s coming up is going to be something very special. It’s really excellent talent, the team that’s in place here, and they need to focus on transitioning from project to operation. So it’s a good time for me” to retire, Thomas said.

The Frost said that Thomas, who came to Miami after leading development and construction of a pair of lauded science and children’s museums in her native United Kingdom, will serve as an advisor on the project through the end of the year.

The museum’s new leaders praised Thomas’ role in guiding the project and struck an enthusiastic note about the impending opening of the new facility, one of the few to combine an aquarium with a science museum and planetarium — something they expect to drive high attendance numbers.

“We are very grateful for what she did — she has pushed this museum through,” said Cesar Alvarez, the senior chairman at Miami legal powerhouse Greenberg Traurig who was brought in as the museum board’s new chairman by its lead donors, Patricia and Phillip Frost, earlier this year after a cash crunch nearly brought construction to a halt.

“I think Gillian did an excellent job. These are difficult projects to take on and manage and finish. They all go through some issues, some larger than others. We wish it hadn’t happened, but she’s done a great job for Miami, for the museum and for education.”

Steslow, who had been jointly running the museum’s operations and the construction project along with Thomas, will now assume her duties leading fundraising and development as well. Before joining the Frost, he had managed expansions and openings as CEO at the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and at the New Jersey State Aquarium (now Adventure Aquarium) with a stint also at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

“I’ve done quite a few openings,” he said. “We’re poised for a really great, successful opening. We’re in good shape right now.”

His experience in running both a science museum and an aquarium is unusual and made him a perfect fit for the Frost project, said Thomas, who helped bring Steslow to Miami.

The museum does have a large financial hole to fill, however. It will have to do without a yearly subsidy from the county, which reprogrammed a promised $4 million annual payment for operations into the $45 million construction grant.

Alvarez and Steslow said they have begun working on securing new donors to cover both that figure as well as stepping up capital fundraising. The Frost’s original construction financing plan fell apart late last year after a shortfall in pledges prompted lenders to balk at providing the $105 million needed to finish the new building.

In exchange for backing a short-term loan to pay contractors while the county grant was finalized, the Frosts — with county support — imposed a series of conditions on the museum, including the dismissal of its board and installation of a new executive committee led by Alvarez and including two top aides to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

The committee approved the appointment of Steslow as Frost president to succeed Thomas, said Miami-Dade cultural affairs director and senior mayoral advisor Michael Spring, a member of the museum’s new executive committee.

“What I’m happy about is that this is occurring in an orderly, respectful and thoughtful way,” Spring said. “We’re fortunate to have someone with the credentials and experience to take over and provide the leadership at this critical juncture. Frank is a guy who could be the leader of any science museum he wanted to be the leader of. His knowledge of this project is invaluable.”

Thomas, meanwhile, said that she will be moving to France, where her husband recently took a position and her two children have been living, but added that she will miss Miami, its people and climate — an aspect that most people wouldn’t necessarily embrace.

“I had a wonderful time here,” she said. “I like the openness of the place. I particularly like the diversity, the mix of people. The museum welcomed the whole range of people here, and I really enjoyed that.

“I also like the light and the vegetation. I even liked the torrential rains.”

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