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Choice to reject museum offer ‘wasn’t vindictive’

By Mark Young, Islander Reporter

Board members of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage say there was nothing personal in rejecting an offer from the Florida Maritime Museum to host FISH educational exhibits during the Feb. 16-17 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival.

The decision to reject the offer forced Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court R.B. “Chips” Shore to institute a mandatory user fee for FISH to use museum property, as outlined in the Florida Communities Trust agreement, which helped complete the county purchase of the 1912 Cortez schoolhouse, now the museum.

The agreement’s terms were unknown to FISH and the museum until an audit occurred last year. The discovery that FISH would have to pay the museum to use its property and no longer split revenue with the museum created a deep riff between the two entities.

Some appear to think that riff never healed and Shore’s Jan. 3 resignation from the FISH board of directors was due to the decision to reject the museum’s offer.

FISH treasurer Jane von Hahmann explained in a series of emails that she could not recommend Shore’s offer based solely on the financial gains FISH incurs by using the museum grounds for their own exhibits.

However, FISH festival chair Linda Molto said it goes beyond financials.

“Chips suggested the museum would coordinate and plan all educational programs for the festival at no cost to FISH,” she said. “He said it benefits FISH to provide education to the greater community.”

But Molto said Shore’s offer meant moving up to 20 planned FISH exhibits and booths off of museum grounds to make way for what the museum wanted to do.

“There is not a square inch of room left to move one exhibit, much less the number of exhibits and artists we have already planned at the museum,” said Molto.

Shore claimed in his emails that last year’s exhibits on museum property raised $1,500. According to FISH financials, the profit was substantially more and Molto said FISH would lose a lot of money if it accepted the museum’s offer.

Financials show that artist fees to have a booth at the festival raised $1,885, food vendors stationed at the museum raised $902 and raffle ticket sales for a boat generated $2,130.

Children’s entertainment booths generated $1,448, “so what he said is simply not true,” said Molto.

“He said we could move all the artists, children’s entertainment, a ticket booth and the entertainment we have planned for the stage at the Bratton Store elsewhere,” she said. “That’s impossible. The only way to accommodate his offer is to cut these people out of the festival and that’s something we cannot do.”

Molto said vendors have been applying for festival space since November and they already have received their acceptance papers.

“And besides that, I have known these artists and food vendors for years,” she said. “We are like a family, so to tell them at the last minute they don’t have a place in our festival would be unprofessional and impossible.”

Because FISH rejected the museum’s offer, Shore instituted a $500 a day user fee for FISH to use museum property per the Florida Communities Trust agreement, which states any fundraising activities on museum grounds must be charged the fee.

“But this will be the first time we’ve ever had to pay that fee,” Molto. “We didn’t pay it last year when this agreement became known and we never paid it before, so why is it coming up now?”

Molto is concerned about the fee, but she is more concerned with the continued divisive nature between FISH and the museum.

“It’s important that we work together,” she said. “We know that the festival brings people to the museum. We just need to understand that we can better benefit one another by working together.”

Shore’s emails indicated his unhappiness with FISH’s decision to reject his offer, but his reason for resigning from the board of directors had more to do with what Shore called “inflammatory language and rhetoric” used by FISH board members toward his office and the museum staff, in particular.

Molto acknowledged the riff between FISH and the museum, but it was Shore’s efforts to hire a facilitator to bring the two entities together that she points to as a hope that Shore will reconsider his resignation and continue to have FISH and the museum show a spirit of cooperation.

Shore was particularly upset with FISH secretary Joe Kane’s minutes from a November festival committee. When Shore announced that he had no choice to implement the mandatory user fee for FISH to use museum property, Kane referred to the $500 a day fee as a “tax” in the minutes.

Forty-four days after those minutes were written, Shore announced his resignation, saying “FISH continues to incite a negative image of my office in the press and in its’ minutes.”

FISH opted not to vote on Shore’s resignation at its Jan. 7 meeting in hopes Shore would reconsider. FISH has not received any word on Shore’s decision. If Shore does not contact the board before its Feb. 4 meeting, the board is expected to take up Shore’s resignation and vote whether or not to accept it.

In the meantime, Molto said festival planning is moving forward and is all but finalized. The festival draws an estimated 25,000 people a year and the proceeds go to FISH’s mission of rehabilitating its 95-acre preserve and preserving the Cortez coastline and way of life as a commercial fishing community.

Festival volunteers are still needed. To volunteer, call 941-254-4972 and leave a message with your name and contact information. Molto said a festival crew member will return all calls.

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