GulfQuest faces uncertain future - FOX10 News | WALA

GulfQuest faces uncertain future

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GulfQuest : National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico on the Mobile River in downtown Mobile, Ala (PHOTO: Franz Barraza and Bill Flowers, FOX10 News) GulfQuest : National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico on the Mobile River in downtown Mobile, Ala (PHOTO: Franz Barraza and Bill Flowers, FOX10 News)
MOBILE, AL (WALA) -

A lot of people are hoping the reopening of GulfQuest this month signals a new beginning for the museum.  All of the mayors who were involved in building the museum say they want to see it succeed, including the current mayor who closed it to the public three months ago.   

GulfQuest is set to reopen to the public on February 18, which is great news to season ticket holders, like Carla Constantine.

"I definitely will continue to go. I was very sad when they closed it, because the kids loved it," Constantine said.

The museum will be back in business, but the GulfQuest Board of Trustees will not be totally in control.

"It is not being fully turned over to GulfQuest. We still will continue to pay the employees, the electric, the things that we had obligated, because I think it's a situation where they've got to get on solid footing, and so this is the first step in doing that," Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. 

Stimpson said the city is paying about $360,000 a year for six GulfQuest employees.  The utility bill is estimated at $400,000 a year.  
 
It's now up to the board to get people into the museum. 

Some locals are hopeful. 

"I think it's a beautiful museum.  I love all the exhibits," museum volunteer Libba Vanderbeek said.

Others, feel the museum doesn’t have what it takes to bring in necessary attendance. 

"I'm not sure it will attract the crowds like it should," Mobilian West Teague said.

The new "Shipwreck! Pirates and Treasure" exhibit, lower ticket prices, and free parking are all new perks to bring in visitors. 

TAX DOLLARS COULD PAY FOR GULFQUEST FOR YEARS TO COME

Those are all of the things the city is doing, but will it be enough to keep GulfQuest afloat?  

This investigation has uncovered that it's going to have to be enough, because we found neither the non-profit, nor the city can afford to let it fail.

As we have mentioned, $26 million dollars in federal transportation grants were the key factors in getting construction underway.

Now, city officials are beginning to realize they will need to assist the GulfQuest non-profit to ensure the museum doesn't go under for good, because closing the museum could force the city of Mobile to pay back those federal grants. 

Board Chairman Mike Lee told FOX10 News he's noticed that reality has set in for the city, as leaders are now beginning to make up for the more than $2 million in construction costs the non-profit fronted over the years, which FOX10 News Investigates uncovered has been a bone of contention for nearly a decade. 

"The city is going to continue to help with the expenses, as they are doing now… I think that cooperative effort is the way to get our feet back on the ground, it's a way for the city to participate and help us recover some of those funds that we spent during that long period before the opening while we were waiting for the building construction," Lee explained.

Lee said the non-profit will pay for an additional five or six employees once the museum reopens, and is securing a number of volunteers. 

However, Lee said the QulfQuest museum only occupies about 40 percent of the ship-shape building. 

Lee said he is working with the city to find a second tenant to help offset costs. 

"Hopefully something that involves entertainment, dining, and so we are pursuing those opportunities," he said.

Some Mobilians, though, aren't so happy about their city going into the museum business. 

"It just took so many taxpayer dollars, if it took that much money to invest in it, then I mean, I'm looking for a heck of a show," Chloe Jeanminette said.

"People are concerned and they're worried that their money is going into something that there may not have been a need for, or didn't get the results they were expecting," D'Andre Day said.

But, whether the taxpayers like it or not, city officials said they have no other choice but to ensure the $60 million dollar facility stays up and running. 

"Let's just say the city said listen, we're going to lock the doors? Then the city would start having to pay the federal government… We can't close it. Even if it's a limited basis, we can't close it," Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson said.

'THE FEDS' WEIGH-IN ON GULFQUEST FUNDING

As a result of this investigation, federal officials are offering new insight into the millions of dollars that paid for the construction of the GulfQuest facility to get underway.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sent FOX10 News Investigates the following written statement about the grant money:

“The City of Mobile recently informed FTA that the Museum would temporarily operate under greatly reduced hours, but re-open in the first quarter of 2017, with different hours of operation.  In general, recipients are required to use federally assisted property continuously and appropriately throughout its useful life. If the recipient fails to use the federally assisted property for the duration of its useful life, depending on the circumstances, the recipient may be required to return a portion of federal assistance spent on the property. FTA is working with the City of Mobile to ensure the facility is in service for its useful life of 30 years.”

FOX10 News Investigates also asked an FTA spokesman if it is common for the agency to demand repayment of federal grants, or if it has ever happened in other cities. An FTA spokesman responded with the following statement:

“Meeting the public transportation needs of the American people is a top priority for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).  As a result, the FTA works closely with grantees to meet our mutual goal of project delivery while ensuring compliance with the federal requirements of FTA’s assistance programs.  Grantees, generally meet requirements. When necessary, FTA has demanded and obtained repayment of Federal funds from a grantee.  The factual circumstances regarding each demand are unique, but all involve a grantee’s noncompliance with Federal requirements.”

The city isn’t the only one who could be in repayment hot water if the museum were to close down permanently. 

According to former Museum Executive Director Tony Zodrow, because of the non-profit's tax credits associated with the exhibits inside the building, the museum will not be able to remove the exhibits for another six years.

FOX10 News investigates remains committed to tracking the museum's progress. We'll keep you updated as we learn new details.

All content © 2017, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.

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