The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: City looking for way to keep Children’s Museum afloat

By Sallie James

    After news of the Boca Raton Children’s Museum’s financial plight was publicized and emails requesting support were sent out to supporters, donations have been trickling in.

    The financially strapped museum had expected to run out of operating funds April 30, according to Executive Director Denise St. Patrick-Bell. She asked for help from the city during a meeting late in April.

    “The public has stepped forward with donations,” she said by phone on April 29.  “It’s enough to keep us open past the April 30th deadline, and possibly another month. We are encouraging people to keep donating. It helps.”

    St. Patrick-Bell said she has not received any more updates or information from city officials on possible solutions to the museum’s long-term financial woes, and had no more details on the status of another non-profit’s possible future involvement in the museum.

    The Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District also will be meeting with Boca Raton city officials to discuss other possible partnership options.

    “There are a couple of entities that have come forward.  We are at least optimistic and heartened. They are talking about collaboration,” said St. Patrick-Bell. 

    She outlined the museum’s dire financial straits to the City Council during an April 21 workshop meeting, proposing the city share museum costs in a partnership by providing an annual $150,000 grant. 

    A day later, she left the April 22 City Council meeting baffled after city officials took no action, saying they needed more time to do research.

    “Our funding is good through April 30,” she said. “Unless my staff wants to work totally as volunteers, we will have to close the doors,” St. Patrick-Bell said afterward. 

    City officials said Boca Raton could likely operate the museum for half of what St. Patrick-Bell is seeking, or about $77,500, if the city took over operations completely. However, such a move would likely affect existing programming and staffing.

    Mayor Susan Haynie said the decision is too big and the potential financial obligations too great to decide too quickly.

    “It’s just premature for the council to give the city manager direction because of these things,” Haynie said after the council meeting. “We don’t have enough information.”

    Council member Michael Mullaugh didn’t have an answer to the museum’s money problems, but insisted the facility would remain open, despite St. Patrick-Bell’s dire predictions.

    “It’s not going to be easy but it’s not going to close,” Mullaugh said. “These programs are important and we have to keep them going.”

    Lack of funding has been an ongoing problem for the 34-year-old museum, whose mission is to expose young children to history, sciences, art and the humanities. 

    The museum operates on a $300,000 budget, with three full-time and five part-time employees.

    The museum leases 0.8 acres at 498 Crawford Blvd. from the city for $1 a year. Two of its three buildings were donated. The city provides the museum with an estimated $12,000 in landscaping services.

    Donations have been sparse, and grants have been scarce. Meanwhile, the bills just keep piling up, St. Patrick-Bell said.

    In June 2013, the museum received an emergency $127,000 grant from Boca Raton to help it survive until October, when it was counting on an annual $23,400 award from the City Council. 

    The museum received a $75,000 bailout grant from the city, also for operating expenses, in March 2012.

    “No one treats us like a nonprofit,” St. Patrick-Bell said. “We pay business-level prices for everything we do.” 

    Council member Scott Singer said the city would be discussing possible options during Boca’s upcoming goal-setting sessions, May 1-2.

     “I appreciate the work of the museum and want to find a solution to keep it open,” Singer said.

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