With half of its employees cut from the fiscal year 2019 budget, the GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico still has enough funding to stay open — for now. However, GulfQuest board Chairman Mike Lee said the group will not be able to fund those positions on its own “in the long term.”
“We’re in no danger of shutting the doors, but we’re going to have to have city support,” Lee said. “The city has been working closely with us.”
Of the 18 GulfQuest employees, nine were paid through the city, Lee said, adding the board was anticipating only about another two years of city support.
The museum had a “really positive last year,” Lee said. Board members are in the middle of a capital campaign meant to raise money to help GulfQuest get out of debt, so far raising $1.3 million in pledges. The museum is also now open six days per week again, he said.
The board has also paid off about $500,000 in debt and it was announced recently that The University of Alabama would rent space in the museum for a transportation institute. The funds from the lease will belong to the GulfQuest board, Lee said.
“We’re light-years ahead of where we were,” he said.
As for attendance, the latest numbers have not been released. City officials told Lagniappe the board would have them and Lee said to check with the city. However, he said school groups and private events are still the strongest component of attendance.
That hasn’t stopped Lee and others from thinking outside the box in terms of the museum’s future. He said the board is working with tourism officials to open a market concept at Cooper Riverside Park and putting GulfQuest and its restaurant at the center of those discussions.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office has concerns over the council’s move to cut almost half the museum’s budget from the city budget. In an interview last week, spokeswoman Laura Byrne said the office was “trying to understand the full consequences” of the move.
One of the concerns dealt with nearly $27 million in Federal Transit Administration funding for the museum and the Michael C. Dow Landing. Byrne said the city has “discussed the issue” and would “stay in touch” with the FTA.
If the museum is forced to close its doors, Stimpson wrote in a series of tweets and Facebook posts, the city could be forced to pay back the money. However, councilors don’t seem concerned about that.
Councilman John Williams said he doesn’t believe the federal government would force the city to repay the money.
“There is not a city in this country being sued over this,” he said. “We’re probably not going to be sued. We tried and tried, but it might be time to say ‘I’m sorry, but Mr. Trump send us a bill.’”
Council spokeswoman Marion Steinfels said Councilwoman Bess Rich believes the new floating dock at the park satisfies at least part of the grant in question.
Williams said the museum is in a nice location and is a “really cool venue.”
“You can have a really nice time there,” he said. “It would be one hell of a casino.”
More importantly, Williams said, the move was made in order to get GulfQuest’s issues more out in the open.
“We need to talk about it,” Williams said. “We need to look at what it has accomplished.”
Williams added he doesn’t think the museum will ever be successful in its current form.
Despite those beliefs, Williams does not believe GulfQuest will close because Stimpson “has too much of an interest in this.” Plus, he added, the council only cut half its money.
“For $500,000 I think I could keep it open, but I’m no businessperson,” he said. “If the mayor has enough interest in it, he’ll tell us and we’ll end up in a better position than we are now.”
Another budget item worth discussing is the mayor’s Innovation Team, or I-Team, from which the council cut about $500,000.
Early on in its initial three-year funding window from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the I-Team made a splash with its cataloging of all of the city’s blighted properties using Instagram and geographic information system services. Since then, though, the group has worked more quietly to change state laws to remedy blighted properties. While blight is still a priority, Byrne said the I-Team is also looking at cutting “red tape” related to business permitting.
The I-Team still has funding through the end of the year from the three-year grant, Byrne said.
About the I-Team cuts, Williams said the council didn’t wanted to avoid it, but had to identify sources of funding on its own for its priorities after Stimpson’s office ignored calls for help. The funding cuts, like with GulfQuest, came from areas where further conversation was needed, Williams said.
“We asked for help and heard nothing,” Williams said. “We waited until Tuesday when it was evident we weren’t going to get any help.”
The city is under no obligation to continue funding the I-Team, Williams said.
“It’s a grant program, but usually when grants run out the program goes away,” he said.