Fabiola Santiago

County bailout of Frost Science Museum was the right move

Artist rendering of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science on Friday, February 5, 2016.
Artist rendering of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science on Friday, February 5, 2016. Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum

It’s not often that you’ll find me on the same side as development-happy Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

But on the issue of a $49 million county bailout for the Patricia & Phillip Frost Museum of Science, Gimenez’s controversial proposal to cover the institution’s private fund-raising shortfall with hotel tax funds made sense. Miami-Dade commissioners agreed and approved Tuesday the cash infusion to complete construction of the eclectic structure in a nearly unanimous 12-1 vote.

“A mothballed museum — that was not an option,” Gimenez said. “Our children and grandchildren will thank us.”

It wasn’t a safe position to take in an election year.

His mayoral race challenger, Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, and civic activists against the bailout pointed out the “broken promises” of this and other quasi-public institutions that have failed to deliver on the fundraising part of their ambitious construction plans. They shouldn’t become a burden to the county. Bailout opponents, however, are wrong about one thing: The Frost Science is a priority for this community.

What better use of our hotel tax dollars than to secure what’s at the heart of this museum — science education and Miami’s future as a player in the field of science and technology? That the state-of-the-art planetarium and aquarium will be a tourist draw is a plus.

Kudos to all who came together to push the reset button. The supporting line-up of Miamians at county hall included a teacher who has witnessed the transformation of students after visiting the old Science Museum, and philanthropists Phillip and Patricia Frost, who for the first time in 50 years of living here attended their first commission meeting.

Will the rest of South Florida back them up by purchasing memberships and stepping up donations now that construction money has been secured? That remains to be seen, but I’ve seen support follow public funding. This town loves a winner — and the Frost Science will become another architectural crown jewel at Museum Park when it hopefully opens this fall.

Having said that, there’s no question that the Frost Science debacle must drive home the point that these quasi-public institutions operating with large infusions of government funds must be more open to public scrutiny, no excuses.

For months, the Frost leadership misled media, underplaying the precarious state of finances and hiding the shenanigans of their since-overhauled board of directors and fired construction company. When it all came to light, people felt that, once more, taxpayers learned too late that an institution using public funds is in trouble. No wonder there’s no trust.

Most museums get public capital and operating tax dollars, yet they don’t function like government agencies bound by Florida’s public records and open-meeting laws. But they should.

If there’s one takeaway from the topsy-turvy way the Arsht Performing Arts Center, the Pérez Art Museum Miami and now the Frost Science came into being, it’s that these quasi-public entities should not be operating in the dark.

“We didn’t get here by accident,” said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who cast the dissenting vote on the bailout.

And he was right, too.