Although it opened roughly 13 months ago with a news conference and a few blasts from the horn of a tugboat, GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico closed temporarily to the public this week with barely a whimper.
After about two decades of planning and five years after ground was broken on the banks of the Mobile River in downtown Mobile, the $60 million, state-of-the-art museum simply ran out of money and was absorbed “until further notice” by Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office.
In a statement, Stimpson announced a “transition period” for the museum and an agreement between the city and GulfQuest’s board of trustees to look at possibly repurposing part of the building.
The agreement came about after museum board chairman Mike Lee sent a letter to Stimpson asking the city to contribute $1.8 million to help it overcome debt.
“Over the past year, with incredibly positive reviews from GulfQuest’s visitors and school groups, we foresee the Maritime Museum’s attendance increasing this year, as we welcome the return of Carnival’s cruise passengers in November and approach the busy holiday season,” Lee wrote. “As a public/private project, GulfQuest is positioned to serve as the centerpiece for Mobile’s downtown waterfront, alongside the cruise terminal. The public and private partners have worked together for over 20 years to bring this amazing project to fruition.”
In response to Lee, Stimpson wrote he could not recommend the city spend that amount of money unless the museum made changes to its management and business model.
Complicating the situation, the city can’t allow GulfQuest to close completely, or Mobile will be on the hook to pay back about $27 million in federal grant funds used to construct the museum and the riverfront landing, Stimpson wrote. It could also put some of the city’s other federal grant awards in jeopardy.
“The city could also lose millions more in unrelated grant funds if the museum were to default on its agreements,” Stimpson wrote. “Therefore, it is imperative the board of trustees revamp its business model and management structure immediately. The city stands ready to assist you in this endeavor because your success is Mobile’s success.”
As part of the agreement, Stimpson slashed the museum’s 18 part-time employees and 10 full-time employees down to just four on Monday, Nov. 7. As part of the agreement, those four will become city employees. It is unclear which personnel Stimpson retained, but in the announcement he hinted it would be those responsible for handling events and maintenance of exhibits. GulfQuest executive director Tony Zodrow resigned, Lee said.
The initial concept was for a small museum in the building along the waterfront with additional office space for the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, now known as Visit Mobile, Lee said in a previous interview.
“To give you a little history: the first group of trustees that were put together were looking for some place in town, not necessarily on the waterfront because we didn’t know anything was available. [Former Mayor Mike] Dow’s administration came as part of the ‘string of pearls’ or whatever, but mostly the Mobile landing concept.’
Lee said Dow told board members about space available in the proposed building on the waterfront.
“It was going to be primarily a fast-ferry terminal,” Lee said. “It was going to have the visitors’ bureau offices move in there, as well as the visitors’ center. We were going to be one of four tenants.”
Reached Monday, Dow said the plan was always to have the museum on the waterfront and the board was in charge of strategic planning and architecture for the facility. At the time he left office, Dow said the museum was still a concept, although his administration helped the board secure the property.
The concept 20 years ago was for a $25 million project, he said. The current investment, including private, state and federal funds, eventually grew to roughly $60 million for the building and exhibits.
Although the museum concept was on the “back burner” while the city worked to ready the landing for Carnival Cruise Line’s initial arrival, Lee said board members were intrigued by the waterfront property.
“The concept was the city had a building and they said, “If you go in there, can you raise the money to put your museum in here?” Lee said. “The decision was made that it’d be a great idea, on the waterfront, to see the ships go by as part of the experience.”
As the years went by, the concept changed over the course of two administrations, Lee said. For instance, Visit Mobile decided not to move in, among other changes. Each change resulted in the museum board taking more and more space in the building.
“Each time something like that happened, the city would say ‘we need you to take a little more space,’” Lee said.
In the early days, when raising funds for the museum dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico came easily, enthusiasm ran high among members of the facility’s nonprofit board and the city.
“Well, we were doing really great raising money and we set a $7 million goal,” Lee said. “We hit it so fast, we went to $10 [million]; hit that, we went to $12 [million]. So it didn’t scare us off.”
After a groundbreaking ceremony in 2011, the city would start construction on the building while the board waited to move in. The waterfront construction, however, was plagued by delays. Lee said water came into the building at one point, among other problems.
“I remember saying we were going to open in 2012 and 2013,” Lee said. “Every time we set a date, there was a setback in the building. We actually had almost all the exhibits built and tucked away in warehouses everywhere from here to Tennessee.”
The museum opened on Sept. 26, 2015, but struggled in its first year to meet attendance figures needed for solvency. Lee said much of the museum’s marketing budget was exhausted waiting for the building to be finished. He added many people also avoided it based on the bad press the delays garnered.
“One of the things that has created some struggle for us now, by the time we opened we had already used a couple of years of operating expenses we didn’t intend to use originally,” Lee said. “[Another] one of the things we’ve had to battle is people saying ‘I’m never going down there; that was a mess.’”
During the time the museum is temporarily closed to the public, or the “transition period,” Lee said the board will be able to focus on fundraising to pay off the nearly $2 million in debt it owes. In previous months, he said, the board had raised money to keep the museum operating but, he admitted, employees waited a few extra days for paychecks at times.
The city has tasked the board with raising $1 million through the rest of 2016 and 2017. Lee said the board expects to raise $1.5 million during that period and add another $5 million to $6 million through a long-term capital campaign in the next five to six years.
The museum’s finances were directly tied to attendance numbers. As attendance fell, it became harder and harder for the board to make ends meet, Lee said. GulfQuest ended its first year with about 80,000 visitors, much fewer than the 200,000 needed to meet budget requirements.
Lee said in a previous interview that the return of the Carnival Fantasy this month would help bolster attendance at the failing museum, but as the timing of Stimpson’s announcements suggests, the administration had lost faith in those calculations.
Indeed, according to the city’s finance department, even if every passenger from the Carnival Fantasy ship paid admission to GulfQuest it wouldn’t be enough to keep it afloat, city spokesman George Talbot said.
During its one-day call of port in October, GulfQuest struggled to attract cruise passengers from the Azamara Quest luxury ship. Of the 650 passengers and 500 crew members aboard, the museum could only entice about 20 to pay admission, Talbot said. To be fair to the museum, he added, the ship arrived in port late and was forced to leave early.
Zodrow said last week that the museum got about a third of the ship’s passengers through the doors because it was a location for free WiFi internet service. He also noted a total of 650 memberships were sold in the 13 months it was open.
Meanwhile, the museum had fallen behind in an agreement with the city to pay utilities on a quarterly basis. Throughout the life of the agreement, GulfQuest failed to make a single payment and owed roughly $400,000 to the city through three quarters.
The city’s debt service on the building totals roughly $2.2 million per year. If the utilities are added to the total, it would cost the city roughly $2.8 million just to keep the facility operational.
Although the museum struggled to gain a foothold with attendance, Dow doesn’t blame GulfQuest, but rather the city’s approach to tourism marketing. The former mayor said comparable historic port cities in the Deep South — such as Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana — each bring in around 6 million to 11 million tourists per year. He said with the amount of tourism, those cities, along with Gulf Shores, can add roughly $50 million to their tax bases, which is money Mobile is missing out on.
“The problem is not that GulfQuest is not a world-class attraction — it is,” he said. “The problem is we are not branding or marketing the area enough to bring in 6 million visitors per year.”
Dow said to reach that goal the city will have to go through strategic planning focused on the tourism industry. Similar steps were taken to attract more manufacturing jobs to the area, he said.
“We need to find out what we can do to compete,” Dow said. “We did it for manufacturing and knocked the manufacturing ball out of the park.”
The process will take everyone, both in government and the private sector, getting on the same page, he said.
Dow suggested more ideas like the Gulf Coast Duck tours, or horse-drawn carriages that could take visitors through Mobile’s historic neighborhoods. He also hasn’t given up on the idea of high-speed ferries to take visitors across to Baldwin County, the beach or through the delta.
“We need to come together,” he said. “I don’t think we’re all on the same page.”
In his announcement, Stimpson said GulfQuest will only remain open for special events and those already on the books. He later added that ticketed Carnival passengers will also be allowed to purchase admission. Stimpson said he didn’t know how long the “transition period” will last.
“We want GulfQuest to be successful at the least cost to the city,” he said. “We believe that what we’re doing will be at the least cost to the city.”
Lee agreed, adding that the board is open to any solution that does not damage the integrity of the museum. As for special events, Lee said the museum was starting to find its niche. He said GulfQuest has events booked through April that could help offset some of the costs associated with ongoing operation and maintenance.
At a press conference, Stimpson said the city and board will look to repurpose parts of the building, as exhibits take up less than half of its 120,000 square feet. The city and the board will also seek the advice of third parties in an attempt, as Stimpson put it, to make the museum “more fun.”
One such party, The Jim Pattison Group, visited GulfQuest last week, Stimpson confirmed. The Jim Pattison Group is a holding company that owns attractions all over the country, including Ripley Entertainment. Stimpson asked the group to come to the museum to advise the city on how to move forward.