Former GulfQuest Director Claims The City Owes Museum Over A Million Dollars, Part 2

E-mail from Larry Wettermark to GulfQuest board member, EB Peebles.

The former executive director of the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of The Gulf of Mexico, Tony Zodrow, is claiming the city owes the museum $1.6 million, per a verbal agreement made with former Mobile Mayor Sam Jones’ administration in 2009.

In an interview with News 5 last week, Zodrow said that if the agreement had been honored, GulfQuest would still be open.

GulfQuest’s struggles began during the construction phase.

“I believe we had 16 or 17 different contractors involved,” Zodrow said. The construction management model chosen by the city was problematic. “The challenge of a construction management model is that you have a lot of different contractors that are all kind of operating independently reporting to the construction management firm but it becomes a lot more challenging in terms of, of being able to manage it moving forward,” Zodrow said.

The original timeline for the building construction was 18 to 24 months. However, it took 5 1/2 years for the GulfQuest building on the Mobile River to be completed. The longer the process took, the more money it cost both the city and the non-profit. Zodrow tells News 5 the City came to the museum board asking for money.

“In October 2009, Mayor Jones and Larry Wettermark, the city attorney, approached the Board of Trustees of the nonprofit and made a request. If the nonprofit would agree to enter into a contractual arrangement with HOAR Program Management, picking up the extension on Hoar’s contract for a total of $1.6 million then the City would agree to take on a similar amount of expense for the non-profit,” Zodrow said.

News 5 caught up with former Mayor Sam Jones at a water board meeting earlier this month. Jones did acknowledge that GulfQuest’s board had paid HOAR Construction $1.6 million, but he claims the museum board came to the city asking for the money. Not the other way around.

“I know that the board paid HOAR Construction $1.6 million. The board came to us at some point and said look is there any way you can help us with that. Our response was that if the construction costs come in under what we expect then I told them I would go to the City Council and see if the Council would agree to help them with whatever they had left from that bond issue. What ended up happening was there was nothing left in the construction budget so, there really was never an agreement,” Jones said.

Tony Zodrow saved numerous documents during his time as executive director of GulfQuest. E-mails dating back to 2009, financial statements for every year of operation and board minutes. These documents reveal a different story about the $1.6 million.

For example, in an e-mail city attorney, Larry Wettermark sent to a GulfQuest board member he says, “remember, that the city is going to assume $1.6M of what previously had been GulfQuest’s obligation for FF&E.”

E-mail from Larry Wettermark to GulfQuest board member, EB Peebles.
E-mail from Larry Wettermark to GulfQuest board member, EB Peebles.

Board minutes from a GulfQuest Board of Trustees Meeting on October 27, 2009, where Wettermark was in attendance, reveal that an agreement between the non-profit and the city was made. The minutes’ state, “GulfQuest has been asked by the City of Mobile administration to assume $1.6 million in building construction cost with HOAR Program Management in exchange for the City assuming the same amount of the museum’s exhibits expenses.”

Minutes- Board of Trustees Meeting 4 P.M. Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Minutes- Board of Trustees Meeting 4 P.M. Tuesday, October 27, 2009

However, GulfQuest’s board nor the city ever signed any legally binding documents pertaining to this verbal agreement. Looking back, Zodrow says this was a mistake. On the other hand, he says the board had no reason not to trust the city.

“We definitely felt like we had an agreement. You know it certainly wasn’t notified by any legal documents but, but it was, it was definitely noted by the Board of Trustees. There were 20-some board members present, and it was widely discussed,” Zodrow said.

The museum’s board never saw that $1.6 million returned by the Jones’ administration.

“The loss of the $1.6 million, when we realized that the city or the Jones administration was not going to honor the agreement was very troubling not just to me but to members of the Board of Trustees. It was discussed at virtually every board meeting,” Zodrow said.

GulfQuest’s board knew the money would never be returned by Jones’s administration, but they were hopeful that when Mayor Sandy Stimpson took office the $1.6 million would be reconciled.

Next week, we’ll explore what happened to the money once Mayor Stimpson took office.

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