By Jim Bleyer
Jeff Vinik owns Tampa Bay. No, not just the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay.
Besides the hockey fans who consistently cram Amalie Arena with unyielding fealty, Vinik’s acolytes include, without any known exception, state and local politicians, movers and shakers on both sides of the Bay, and area media.
The accolades are deserved: rescuing a hockey franchise whose bungling owners alienated a once-rabid fan base, unveiling an ambitious, exciting plan to revitalize Tampa’s downtown core, and immersing himself in local philanthropy. From all media accounts, there is nary a chink in the White Knight’s armor.
But Vinik’s business interests allocate millions in advertising dollars annually to the local media, including both cash-starved area daily newspapers. One, The Tampa Bay Times, had an open fiduciary relationship with Vinik for years when its name was slapped on his downtown arena formerly known as the Ice Palace. It constituted a blatant breach of journalistic ethics. After all, the Times covers everything that occurs in that building from hockey to meetings/conventions to arena football to concerts. The impropriety is mind boggling and indefensible.
Largesse to area media could be why Tampa Bay residents are unaware of two underperforming Vinik-managed hedge funds, ethical controversies, and that he was a target of an SEC investigation. But not in every case do we get none of the story; sometimes we only get half as in the case of the financially troubled Museum of Science and Industry. The press has never questioned Vinik’s puzzling interest in relocating MOSI from central Hillsborough County to downtown Tampa for his health-oriented revitalization “vision.” Moving the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine makes sense. Luring a Fortune 500 company and a natural foods-oriented market are logical. MOSI? Not so much.
MOSI has been hemorrhaging so much red ink that the Hillsborough County Commission two weeks ago approved a $400,000 bailout. MOSI’s Board of Directors, meeting behind closed doors, refused to accept the loan citing the conditions attached to it as too onerous. Why would a former hedge fund manager with a reputation for financial acuity and due diligence choose a failing institution to help buttress a plan for downtown Tampa where he has a huge investment? More concerning: the lack of coverage by the mainstream media about a dysfunctional organization that has been the recipient of public money for years but remains unanswerable to anyone for its utter failure financially, educationally, and artistically.
MOSI’s steadfast refusal to lift the veil of secrecy over its records and deliberations hardly provides safe harbor for a press corps that lacks enterprise. The June elevation of Molly Demeulenaere as its permanent CEO was particularly enigmatic. The Times three months ago sued the museum to open its public records but legal action is not a substitute for a penetrating media investigation of an incomprehensible appointment. Presumably, the Times thought the citizens of Tampa Bay deserved to know why MOSI directors selected Demeulenaere (pronounced Damillionaire, I’m told), a former professional ballroom dancer who failed to receive even a two-year degree while attending Edison Junior College in Fort Myers. She headed the Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone (G.WIZ), a Sarasota children’s museum that went belly up due to financial mismanagement. There were 82 other applicants for the MOSI job.
Since the litigation, the readership learned nothing from the Times until last week after Floridiocy began working the phones for this column. For the record, Team Vinik, through his spokesperson Ali Glisson at Strategic Property Partners, was given an opportunity to answer queries about MOSI, its financial difficulties, its CEO, and its relocation future. We patiently await a direct response—not a sanitized one through mainstream media–and if answers are provided to our specific questions, Floridiocy will air them. Entities that were more forthcoming include Hillsborough County Schools personnel; Les Miller, the Hillsborough Board of County Commission’s liaison to MOSI; staffers at the Tampa Bay Times; sources in Sarasota, and to a far lesser extent MOSI itself.
A timeline might help clarify the intricate MOSI mosaic so let’s track it:
March, 2012: Demeulenaere resigns from heading The G.WIZ museum in Sarasota. Big donors didn’t learn until after her departure that audits were never conducted and donations they thought were earmarked for new interactive exhibits were used instead to pay ongoing expenses.
March, 2012: Demeulenaere joins MOSI as vice president of development.
May, 2012: G.WIZ finances scrutinized by auditor. Sara Rankin Wilson named CEO of the floundering enterprise.
August, 2012: G.WIZ closes “for renovations.” It never reopens.
August, 2012: The Times publishes a background puff piece, “Tampa, meet your new neighbor: Jeff Vinik.” There is no mention of Vinik’s past SEC and Wall Street troubles. The downtown hockey arena was still known as the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
April, 2013: Vinik buys a 6,125 square-foot house on St. Armand’s Key in Sarasota for $4.25 million.
August, 2013: Sara Rankin Wilson tells the media that the G.WIZ financial woes were far worse than she was told when signing on.
September, 2013: Vinik tears down the 12-year-old luxury home amid local controversy.
May, 2014: Vinik purchases a 3,100 square-foot home on an adjoining St. Armands lot for $3.5 million. He tears it down and announces plans for a 15,900 square-foot palatial estate 59 miles to the south of his sprawling South Tampa residence.
August, 2014: Demeulenaere becomes interim president at MOSI.
January, 2015: MOSI takes out a $400,000 loan without informing or getting approval from the county. Interest on the loan is 4.25 percent but the museum could have received a no-interest loan from the county.
April 27, 2015: Strategic Property Partners discloses it is looking at relocating MOSI to Vinik’s downtown development.
June, 2015: MOSI directors remove Demeulenaere’s “interim” designation, naming her president and CEO. The job description calls for a “masters degree or equivalent experience.”
July 23, 2015: County Administrator Mike Merrill is quoted as questioning Demeuelenaere’s ability to lead MOSI’s downtown move but good enough to “keep the lights on. You really want someone that has national credentials who would make MOSI a world-class name,” he added.
July 28, 2015: The Tampa Bay Times files suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court against MOSI in an effort to open its records to the public.
August 8, 2015: The Times asks the court for an alternate writ of mandamus and accelerated hearing.
August 17, 2015: DeMeulenaere and Vinik meet for the first time, according to an article published in the Times. The headline: “Vinik sits down to ‘get to know’ MOSI’s new leader.”
August 26, 2015: Floridiocy contacts Times staffer Anne Steele (since departed for the Wall Street Journal) who initially reported the litigation against MOSI, about the status of the lawsuit. She said MOSI and the Times were negotiating a “settlement.” Asked if that meant if the Times would accept anything less than all the records, Steele replied, “absolutely not.”
August 31, 2015: MOSI’s attorney, Thomas M. Gonzalez, answers the Times complaint by denying most of the allegations.
October 7, 2015: The Hillsborough County Commission, through its no-discussion “consent agenda,” approved $585,915 for MOSI from Oct. 1, 2015 through Sept. 30, 2017.
October 21, 2015: Hillsborough commissioners agree to a $400,000 MOSI bailout if it meets 14 conditions.
October 22, 2015: A Times editorial discloses that the MOSI board made the applications for CEO available to the newspaper but apparently not the public. Deliberations, recordings, and minutes are not mentioned. The Times has yet to report the caliber of those passed over for the head job and the MOSI board’s rationale for hiring someone with a threadbare resume and failed track record. The lawsuit remains pending, according to the Times.
October 27, 2015: MOSI directors, in a closed meeting, reject Hillsborough’s emergency loan offer.
October 30, 2015: The Times reports MOSI owed its vendors more than $1 million as of September.
Supposedly a rainmaker with development skills, Demeulenaere has claimed that at both G.WIZ and MOSI, she was unaware of the dire economic situation. One thing is certain: she lacked the ability to pull either institution from a desperate financial quagmire. Her lack of formal credentials might be overlooked if she had tangoed a turnaround.
The MOSI board declared that instead of accepting government loans with conditions, it will raise the needed funds privately to keep the doors open. A White Knight could be waiting in the wings.
Meanwhile, taxpayers are getting a haircut for which there are no answers simply because not enough questions are being asked.