Frost Museum of Science Is Out of Cash, Can't Finish Construction Without County Help

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The new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science is planned as the centerpiece of the emerging bayfront area downtown, an eco-friendly tourist mecca with a jaw-dropping, enormous shark tank as its centerpiece. Miami-Dade County is so bullish on the plan it sank $160 million in taxpayer funds to help pay for construction of the $275 million project. 

Apparently, that wasn't enough. County commissioners learned last night that the Frost has run out of cash and can't afford a $5 million monthly payment due to its construction firm without more help.

Commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez were aghast at the news but also scrambled to find a way to plug the gap, because the museum is simply too important, they say, to let the project fall apart. 

"It's kind of a comedy of errors, but it's still a very important cause," Commissioner Xavier Suarez tells New Times. "This science museum cannot be allowed to fail."

The museum is one of the most ambitious construction projects in Miami's history. There's a giant, globe-shaped planetarium overlooking Biscayne Boulevard, two high-tech gallery spaces, and the centerpiece: a 500,000-gallon, martini-glass-shaped aquarium for sharks and other large marine animals. 

To pay for the buildout, the Frost planned to supplement the $160 million in county funds with private fundraising. But Suarez and the other commissioners were told last night that the museum's fundraising had fallen short of goals and it wasn't able to secure a loan for the final piece of construction.

As the Miami Herald notes, this isn't the project's first speed bump. The original contractor was fired in 2014, tying up the project in court and costing an extra $25 million in the end.  

But Gimenez quickly decided to act on the latest shortfall. He's proposing to roll together the annual $4 million operating payments the county promised the museum and instead pay out a lump $45 million to finance the last leg of construction. 

"The Science Museum is a Miami-Dade County institution. Mayor Gimenez and his administration do not want to watch it fail," Michael Hernandez, the mayor's spokesperson, says in a statement. "The proposal, which should be before the full Board of County Commissioners by March, is probably the best opportunity our community will have to complete construction of the Frost Science and possibly have it open its doors late this year. This project is too important to future generations of Miamians, and that is why Mayor Gimenez and his administration are proposing this plan."

Hernandez adds that those funds would come from the county's Convention Development Tax (which draws cash from hotel taxes), not from the general fund (which comes from property tax).  

Suarez says he supports the idea — but notes it will leave the museum on shaky footing. Without those $4 million annual payments, the museum will have to find a way to stay open entirely with admission and donations. 

"It scares me and bothers me to be using what was supposed to be operating revenues," Suarez says. "Now that leaves us with them in jeopardy of running out of operational money."

Commissioners will have to approve Gimenez's plan. But Suarez says worries aside, he'll back the move — getting the museum open is too important, he says.

"This is an area we've invested a lot into and that's just starting to acquire some cachet," he says. "And on a personal level, my kids grew up going to the science museum there on South Miami Avenue. They'd climb over the walls when the place was closed. It's extremely important to our community to have a great science museum."

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