From the outside, it’s hard to imagine why the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum isn’t open. The facade was completed in mid-2012, and since then the cranes and major construction equipment have been removed from the site.
More recently, the parking lot was paved and striped, and the grounds landscaped. But take a step through the double glass doors at the front entrance and it’s a different story.
The lobby is coming together, but just beyond, the “galley” of the museum — where visitors will be able to grab a bite to eat and watch the Gulf’s vessel traffic in real time on computer monitors — is still a concrete shell of a room with electrical conduit jutting out of the floor and a ceiling without tiles. The bathrooms are complete, but the exhibit spaces and to a smaller degree the offices, meeting rooms and educational areas are missing baseboards, ceiling tiles, carpet and in some cases, walls.
The room that will eventually house the museum’s store is currently a workshop. Security cameras that were designed to keep an eye on the merchandise instead perch over toolboxes, ladders and sawhorses. A fine layer of dust and small flecks of paint cover almost everything, and depending on what time of day it is, the elevators may not work.
But in some areas, it is also beginning to resemble a landmark attraction. The city, which owns the building, issued the nonprofit that operates GulfQuest a temporary certificate of occupancy March 10. While there is still a lot of work to be done, GulfQuest Executive Director Tony Zodrow said the temporary certificate of occupancy allows the nonprofit to have access to the building and begin its final fit-out while construction is still incomplete.
Multiple delays have left both the city and GulfQuest hesitant to nail down an official opening date, but Zodrow said the temporary certificate may cut an eight-month exhibit installation period down to six. Still, he said many of the exhibits are too technologically sensitive to install or operate while a threat from construction-related dust or debris remains.
“I have $13 million worth of exhibits ready to be installed tomorrow if I had a building,” Zodrow said recently. “But when we look at what needs to be done to complete it, it’s still two or three months out at a minimum. We didn’t do anything to create that and we can’t do anything to affect it, so we just go on what we’re told.”
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the temporary certificate was a courtesy while the city works with the project manager to tie up loose ends.
“We’re hopeful that within the next 90 days they will get full certificate of occupancy and we’re working through Hoar Project Management dealing with all the contractors trying to bring everything to closure,” Stimpson said earlier last week. “I don’t think there needs to be any concern about the completion of the project from the standpoint of construction, it’s a matter of getting it open and getting people starting to come in there, and I think that’s a question mark until we do that and find out what happens.”
For his part, Zodrow just celebrated his ninth year as the executive director of a museum that still doesn’t quite exist. But while the construction has been ongoing, Zodrow and the GulfQuest Board of Trustees have been active fundraising, securing corporate sponsorships and grants, and finalizing operational plans.
Beside the purchase price of the exhibits, the nonprofit also launched a private capital campaign that has raised 98 percent of its $10 million goal. Last August, GulfQuest closed on a new market tax credits transaction that netted $1.8 million. At its last board meeting, Zodrow said the board reached a consensus on admission prices.
When it does open, adults will pay an $18 admission fee, teenagers will pay $16 and children between the ages of 3-12 will pay $14.
“Nobody wants to open this facility more than I do,” Zodrow said.
In the two weeks since it was granted its temporary certificate, GulfQuest has begun to install three of its 90 exhibits. Earlier this week, it also received its 16-minute-long orientation film, and although the 80-seat theater where it will be shown still lacks acoustic paneling or lighting effects, the production quality is impressive.
In the lobby, a worker was tinkering with touch-screens that control a large interactive map of the Gulf. Down the hall, crews were outfitting a geographic display with items that were unique to the Gulf’s five states. Upstairs, in an exhibit that is self-contained in a completed room, a technician was testing the museum’s virtual pilot boat exhibit. The kinks are still getting worked out, and when a computer monitor flickered, the technician hit it with his fist to make it work again.
“It’s going to be an absolutely amazing world-class facility,” said Colby Cooper, the mayor’s chief of staff. “The city is taking the responsibility to make sure in the most expeditious fashion the GulfQuest museum has their permanent certificate of occupancy. At that point, I’m not trying to put the onus of the burden on them, but the reality is it will be up to them as to when they open their museum. [So] let’s just say within the next 75-80 days, [we’ll] get them a permanent certificate of occupancy so this can happen as fast as humanly possible.”