No one could have foreseen how quickly things would go south for the GulfQuest Maritime Museum. However, there were early signs that the museum could be headed for the rocks.
The city faced a number of challenges just to get the museum built. It was a lengthy process spanning several city administrations. Each facing different obstacles on the road to completing GulfQuest.
Former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow was the city leader who first embraced the concept of a National Maritime Museum for Mobile's waterfront two decades ago. He didn't expect the museum would close after only 13 months.
"Certainly, I didn't want it to shut down, but I understood," Dow said. See Quest for Answers interactive timelineDow expected construction to begin on the last of his "String of Pearls" in 2004. It was a big dream, with a big price tag, but Dow told the City Council the money would come from federal and private funds, NOT local taxpayers.
"I certainly won't defend the fact that wound up costing too much. You know it did," Dow said.
The "keel laying" in 2009 signaled the groundbreaking for the project, and what many hoped would be a bright future for the museum.
At the event Gov. Bob Riley told FOX10 News, "This area is growing like no other on the Gulf Coast, from Houston to Tampa, this area is really on fire."
But, there were storm clouds on the horizon that would plague the project with multiple challenges and delays over the next six years.
In November of 2009, the City Council was asked to refinance a bond issue to give $3.6 million to GulfQuest. Councilman John Williams pressed concern about how the city would pay for construction.
By 2011, more Council members were questioning the mounting cost.
"I had concerns, and I think when I did have an opportunity in 2011 I think I expressed my concerns, and didn't get all the answers," Bess Rich said.
"They ran against all kinds of problems that they hadn't planned on, because you're trying to build it on the water. They had problems with water coming into the facility before they could finish it," Fred Richardson said.
Flooding in the building not only added to the construction cost, but also led to an expensive mold problem.
And, Dow who watched the project from the sidelines after he left office says there were other challenges no one expected.
"I think it was like a big rock fell on their head. We had 2008, we had the worst recession ever, we had Katrina, we had the BP oil spill, you had the worst recession ever and all the money went away, and things got tough," Dow said.
But, there were signs the museum could be headed for financial trouble long before the construction headaches. Apparently, some city leaders doubted attendance projections estimating more than 300 thousand people would visit the museum annually.
That was the figure in a 2009 economic impact study commissioned by GulfQuest.
Former Museum Executive Director Tony Zodrow mentioned the study during an interview with FOX10 News in March of 2014.
Zodrow said, "We did a marketing feasibility study based on what we can anticipate relative to attendance. ... So, when we are looking at attracting about 300,000 visitors a year to GulfQuest, it's not impacted by anything that happens with the cruise terminal."
But, former Mayor Sam Jones believes the projections were wrong.
"The real problem is the studies that was done, the management strategy that was put together was in error," Jones said.
Could the city have cut its losses and pulled the funding?
Council member Fred Richardson said no.
"Because if we didn't complete the museum we'd have to give the $27 million back to the federal government," Richardson explained. "We were not in ... position to do that. So, we kept adding on $5 million here, some there."
But the city did reach a turning point that led to a controversy that continued long after former Mayor Sam Jones left office.
"The city got to a point with that where we did our last bond issue on that, and what we said was, when this bond issue is complete we won't put any more money in it. Everybody knew that," Jones said.
According to Jones, the city was ready to stop pumping money into the project in 2009. Something happened between the city and the GulfQuest board that kept the project moving forward.
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