Miami science museum hopes to put $200 million bond issue on March ballot
By Susan Stabley
Miami Museum of Science & Space Transit Planetarium officials will ask voters to approve $200 million bond issue for its new home in Bicentennial Park.
The proposal would advance plans for Museum Park Miami. But Miami Art Museum, which also is planning to move to the 29-acre park in downtown Miami, is not involved in the science center's drive to put the issue on a countywide ballot in March.
A request from the science museum to petition for a bond referendum is set to go to the Miami-Dade County Commission on Sept. 9, said Elections Department spokesman Seth Kaplan. If approved, supporters of the science museum could begin a petition drive Sept. 23. The museum would have 60 days to get signatures from 4% of the county's registered voters - about 36,678 - to put the bond on the ballot.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jimmy Morales said he was not happy that the science museum is taking the action without the art museum. "This is a very divisive move within the arts and cultural community," he said Tuesday.
The museums agreed three years ago to move to Bicentennial Park to create Museum Park Miami as a cultural destination.
Gillian Thomas, head of the science museum, said Friday that the independent push follows a survey by Bendixen and Associates that showed "incredible" support for a new building for the science museum.
As proposed, the bond would finance a scaled-back "Science Center of the Americas," Ms. Thomas said. Plans call for a 250,000-square-foot building, down from 365,000 square feet, but still about four times the size of the museum's existing facility on 3 acres at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens.
The museum has "literally run out of space," Ms. Thomas said. Because the site is a historic landmark, the museum is limited in expansion potential.
The science museum hopes to move by 2006.
"I think we're just exploring the best way of moving forward," said Ms. Thomas. "We're not involved in developing the art museum. The science museum is working diligently on its own project."
Officials from both museums are expected to meet within a week to discuss working together on the referendum, said Margaret Pulles, vice president for strategic development for the science museum and project manager for Museum Park Miami.
Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delehanty confirmed the talks. "We're in discussion with this possibility," she said, but "they are exploring (the bond referendum) as their option for the park."
A final decision for the science museum to work alone may end up a matter of numbers, said Ms. Pulles. The science museum-commissioned survey showed less support for a $300 million bond referendum that would fund both facilities, she said.
"We had to analyze what the best funding option was," said Ms. Pulles. "In the end, we're each responsible for developing our own project."
Science museum officials may find that gaining the Miami-Dade County Commission's approval for a petition drive for a $200 million bond referendum is the easy item on their fund-raising to-do list.
Winning support from city and county officials who don't want to see the science museum make progress on plans to relocate to Bicentennial Park without Miami Art Museum appears to be the tougher challenge.
The proposed bond issue, if passed by voters, would help finance the science center's new home in the planned Museum Park Miami but does not involve the art museum.
A bond approved in 2001 by Miami voters set aside $3.5 million to each of the two museums for the move if they raise $10.5 each in matching donations.
But with a new leader at the helm, the science museum is considering going it alone in pursuit of the $200 million bond, an idea that Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jimmy Morales on Tuesday called "a very divisive move within the arts and cultural community."
The science museum's request to petition for a bond referendum is set to go to county commissioners Sept. 9, but the commission can only reject it if the museum doesn't follow the letter of the law in its request, Commissioner Morales said.
"We can't stop them," he said. "They have the right to put something on the ballot."
He fears that an independent move by the science museum could hurt the county's ability to garner support for other bonds - such as a major billion-dollar general-obligation bond likely to go before voters within a year.
The county's proposed bond could include funds for Museum Park Miami among a dozen other projects, but Commissioner Morales said it might be too little or too late for the museums' plans.
He said it is unlikely that the science museum would get $200 million of the proposed $1 billion that would be used to fund capital projects across the county.
"I think this reflects a frustration with the process," Commissioner Morales said of the science museum's petition drive. "In all fairness, they have been waiting a long time."
As it stands now, space limitations at the science museum's current 55,000-square-foot building at the historic Vizcaya Museum & Gardens prevent it from expanding and using its affiliation to tap into collections at the Smithsonian Institution.
The museum's proposed Science Center of the Americas, in its first phase, would cost $75 million for the building, $50 million for permanent exhibitions and $20 million for furniture, fixtures, an outside science park and exhibition acquisitions. Another $30 million would be used for startup costs, endowment and contingency funds.
"Frankly, we can't wait forever," said Margaret Pulles, vice president for strategic development for the science museum and project manager for the move to Museum Park Miami. "We don't know when the county will be ready with the general-obligation bond."
City Commission Chairman Johnny Winton, whose district includes the proposed Museum Park Miami, is adamant that both museums work together. He called on them to meet after hearing that the science museum would consider a bond initiative independently.
"As far as I'm concerned right now, this is a partnership," Commissioner Winton said Tuesday. "There shouldn't be a single, go-it-alone deal."
Commissioner Winton also said the science museum is "going on a path that sounds good."
"It sounds contradictory," he said. "But what they are doing is creating a sense of great urgency to get (Museum Park Miami) cranking."
The non-profit Miami Art Museum has its own campaign for moving to the park from its 36,000-square-foot building at 101 W Flagler St. with three chairs named to help raise private money - former US ambassador Paul Cejas; Phillip Frost, chairman of Miami pharmaceutical maker IVAX Corp.; and Miami developer Jorge Perez.
Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delehanty said they are considering a building that would cost about $65 million for design, construction, furniture and fixtures similar to the 153,000-square foot Museum of Modern Art of Fort Worth, TX.
Developer and art collector Martin Margulies said he opposes public money for the museum and that the museum should "raise it themselves rather than rape the taxpayer."