Though it will take some time to be sure, South Florida Museum officials are confident the museum will thrive in the post-Snooty era.
South Florida Museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio said Snooty’s drowning on July 23 took an emotional toll on everyone and what Snooty represented will not only be honored, but carried on well into the future.
“Snooty was pretty unique in that while we had Snooty, he helped and was an ambassador for his species,” Besio said. “But when the board decided to begin the manatee rehab program in 1998, it was us making a commitment to the species and that is something we are committed to doing. We are committed to our manatee rehab program and it’s a continued opportunity to share with students about the environment and to care for these amazing creatures.”
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Snooty, who was sharing the Parker Aquarium with three rehabilitating manatees, died just hours after celebrating his 69th birthday. No one knows how long Snooty could have lived, but the inevitability of eventually losing him had been on the minds of the board of directors since 2006.
“During our strategic planning in 2006, we had those discussions about what to do post-Snooty,” Besio said. “It’s been part of the planning to look to the future, and our investment into the manatee rehab program was one aspect, as well as focusing on all of our other assets.”
Museum exhibits often come and go, which reflects on attendance, and thus the bottom line. But there is no comparison to Snooty’s uniqueness as an attraction so there is no immediate way to determine what, if any, will be the long-term financial impact of his demise.
It’s frustrating when you hear what’s going on now with people saying, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen to the museum now.’
Elliott Falcione, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Elliott Falcione believes the future of the museum is bright, pointing to a planned $12 million expansion set to begin this fall.
“We helped create awareness of Snooty’s birthday, but we help create awareness of the museum as an entire museum,” Falcione said. “It’s frustrating when you hear what’s going on now with people saying, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen to the museum now?’ I believe those people have never been in what is the most beautiful and unique museum in Florida.”
Falcione said Manatee County as a whole is “excited about the renovation and expansion. The South Florida Museum is a landmark for our urban core and overall Bradenton community. We expect it to grow, to continue to grow, and they have our utmost support. Snooty’s legacy will continue on for many, many years to come in protecting our manatees, education and so much more and will always be part of a family tradition of visiting the museum.”
The Tourist Development Council invested $1 million into the museum’s upcoming expansion efforts two years ago. With some foresight, the money came with a stipulation that the museum create a new branding campaign. Besio said that also has been part of the museum’s strategic planning.
A multimillion dollar operation
The South Florida Museum brought in more than $2.7 million in 2015, according to the non profit’s 990 form. Of that revenue, 69,877 visitors accounted for $585,767 in admission fees. The 2015 Internal Revenue Service document shows expenses of almost $3 million, for a net loss of $250,000.
Brian Carter, board treasurer, said it wasn’t really a loss, rather the result of standard practices to account for depreciation of assets.
“We aren’t really spending that cash,” Carter said. “If we buy an asset, it depreciates over its life and what you are writing off is previously purchased assets and you have to expense long-life assets over time. For example, if we buy a planetarium show and have it licensed over several years, the IRS says we have to put that down as an asset. So the cash may have gone out two years ago, but the expense remains documented for years.”
The museum’s 990 shows assets worth $31 million in 2015, which includes cash, inventory, buildings, equipment, exhibits and more. The museum actually had more than a $1.8 million increase in savings and cash in 2015. Carter said that increase came from the capital campaign for the expansion, as well as from increased attendance over several years.
We are financially solid. It’s a collaborative effort with good management and a very engaged board.
Brian Carter, South Florida Museum Board of Directors Treasurer
Though the museum owns its buildings, the majority of the land belongs to the city. The museum signed a 99-year land lease in 1964. In 1986, the city had to redo the paperwork because the original lease was lost, but no changes were made to the original dates. The museum’s 990 also shows the city donates on average about $20,000 a year in in-kind water fees.
Of the almost $3 million in expenses in 2015, $1.25 million was employee related, with almost $1.1 million being paid out in salaries, $69,216 in benefits and $82,215 in payroll taxes. The museum, in 2015, had $6.6 million in savings and $14.4 million in the South Florida Museum Endowment Trust fund, of which the museum only takes the annual interest and dividends to apply toward operational costs. The trust fund is handled by a completely different board of directors.
Since 2015, cash savings have increased with the museum reaching its initial fundraising goal of $12 million for the planned expansion, $6 million of which is ready to be spent on the first phase of the expansion.
Construction permits are expected to be ready later this month to build a new education center on the north end of the museum property, including plans to create a scenic transitional connectivity to Riverwalk. Groundbreaking could occur as early as October.
The museum is already the top destination for educational school field trips on Florida’s gulf coast, according to Besio, who said schools from 10 counties plan trips to the museum each year. In 2016, 10,500 students visited the museum.
We are looking to the future to make sure the museum is changing, growing and will meet the future needs and that has been part of our strategic planning since 2006.
Brynne Anne Besio, South Florida Museum CEO
The first phase of the expansion, which includes a new educational center and backyard universe, is focusing on educational programming. Future phases will include renovating the planetarium and building more exhibit space.
“The start of construction will be the physical piece people can see, but this planning has been ongoing for more than five years,” Besio said.
Carter said the museum is moving forward with expansion debt free.
“We are financially solid,” he said. “It’s important to note that the board is heavily involved in budgeting and long range planning, but it’s not just the board or management that is moving us forward. It’s a collaborative effort with good management and a very engaged board.”
The post-Snooty era
How Snooty’s death will ultimately affect the museum won’t likely be known until the museum does its year-to-year comparisons of attendance figures.
“But we have not seen that drop in attendance,” Besio said. “We’ll do the year-to-date comparisons but thus far, we’ve had good traffic. Attendance for us can be reflective of the weather or our exhibits. Some are more popular than others and part of our expansion is to build a bigger exhibit hall so we can plan for bigger exhibits.”
Besio acknowledged it’s an unknown because Snooty’s long tenure with the museum began when the museum did, “but we are bringing resources to the community and will continue to do that. We’ve been here for 70 years and Snooty was a great part of that. We are looking to the future to make sure the museum is changing, growing and will meet the future needs and that has been part of our strategic planning since 2006.
“We aren’t changing, we are growing.”
Carter said if anyone thinks Snooty was the only attraction at the South Florida Museum, “I would encourage them to come and see what we have, but I will note that piece of Snooty is still here through our rehabilitation program. You can still get that and so much more.”