Frost science museum’s county-funded lifeline needs some strings attached

The new Patricia and Phillip Frost Science Museum.
The new Patricia and Phillip Frost Science Museum. Carl Juste

Once again, Miami-Dade County taxpayers are being asked to bail out a (fill in the blank).

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Science Museum in downtown Miami is 75 percent finished, but it’s run out of money to complete the job, a $325 million project in Miami’s Museum Park.

It all began in a familiar way: An excited group of investors back in 2011 decided the 65-year-old museum near Vizcaya needed a bigger, better, brighter home. (The Editorial Board got on board, too.)The county earmarked $165 million for the construction of the public-private project. Museum leaders said donors’ pledges would cover the rest. Didn’t happen, even though Phillip Frost, worth $4 billion according to Forbes, primed the pump with a $35-million gift that gave him and his wife naming rights.

Now museum leaders have come hands out to the county — i.e taxpayers — to bail them out to the tune of $48 million (exasperated, screaming emoji goes here).

As per its deal with the county, the museum was supposed to contribute $107 million for construction, to be added to the $165 million Miami-Dade was providing out of borrowed funds tied to property taxes. That deal collapsed when the museum did not meet its private funding goals.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to vote on a $48-million bailout package for the museum. Mayor Carlos Gimenez says the county will put up about $45 million to match the amount that private lenders say they can provide based on the museum’s pledged donations. Trims to the construction budget would close the rest of the gap.

The tax-funded rescue seems likely to pass, and should, as long as museum leaders understand that this is the last bite they get of the county’s funding apple. The mayor had planned to propose a $4 million yearly operating subsidy for the Frost. Now, the museum is poised to get the annual disbursement up front.

Mr. Gimenez and the commissioners are in a pickle. How can they just walk away and leave the science museum unfinished and deteriorating downtown, in a prime location for all to see? It would be the physical manifestation of a failure of leadership. First the museum’s, and then county leaders’.

Indeed, as a county Inspector General’s report released, fortuitously, on the eve of the commission meeting, bashed the county’s mishandling of the deal. The report said the county shouldn’t have allowed tax dollars to flow so freely into museum construction without insisting that private donations flow in on schedule, too.

Likewise, the museum’s leadership painted a far-too-rosy picture, even to the Editorial Board, about the museum’s financial stability.

Heads have started to roll, and more might follow: At the Frosts’ insistence, the entire board of directors was let go over the financial shortages and the county now has a say in the project, which it didn’t before.

As part of his bailout proposal, Mayor Gimenez is requiring the museum to pledge to not seek any additional direct county aid until Miami-Dade pays off the debt tied to the rescue. That provision needs to be airtight. And the Frost needs to publicize a solid plan — not pie in the sky — to keep the museum doors open once the blare of the inaugural hoopla goes silent. Operating funds don’t materialize out of thin air.

The Frost museum should get its bail out, but with the understanding that its leaders have squandered a lot of the goodwill it had in the county. And for their part, commissioners have an obligation to ensure that neither they nor the museum squander what little goodwill is left, to say nothing of county funds.