Monday, April 17, 2006


It's move or sink, maritime museum says


Palm Beach Post
By Rachel Simmonsen
April 08, 2006

In a tiny house on bustling Kanner Highway near Stuart, the rooms overflow with handmade models of ships, old woodworking tools and life jackets, boat motors, a cannon once used to start yacht races and a tattered flag that flew at a New York yacht club whenever President Theodore Roosevelt visited.

Only most people wouldn't know it, Bill Lersch said Friday.

"I don't think anyone's come in all week," said Lersch, board president of the Maritime and Yachting Museum of the Treasure Coast, which moved into the house about four years ago.

Even some of the volunteers have stopped coming. "One fellow said he just got tired of sitting here by himself," Lersch said.

And yet he is hopeful. Board members say they have a plan to revitalize the nonprofit museum, which, after moving at least six times in 11 years, Lersch likens to a grape "dying on the vine." Their goal is to take over the abandoned Evinrude Building at Indian RiverSide Park in Jensen Beach.

The estimated 18,000-square-foot building — formerly a mansion on what used to be a sprawling estate, then a classroom building when the park was the campus of the Florida Institute of Technology — would host programs and showcase the museum's collection, half of which can't fit in its current home, Lersch said.

The plan also calls for a gift shop in a former maintenance building at the park; boat restoration would take place in what once was a maintenance shed.

The museum will make a formal pitch to Martin County, which owns the property, within 30 days, said Karlin Daniel, a museum board member.

If commissioners approve the plan, the museum would have enough indoor space to store the handful of decades-old wooden boats that volunteers have restored.

Right now, the boats sit behind the museum under a fabric dome, prone to the heat and dust, which dry out the wood and can damage the varnish, Lersch said.

As for the proposed, much larger new exhibit hall, the museum would have no trouble filling it, Lersch said.

Many of the people who have donated relics to the museum have said they have much more to give; the museum simply didn't have the room to take it.

At Indian RiverSide Park, where a children's museum is planned just south of the Evinrude Building and the U.S. Sailing Center sits just north, Daniel and Lersch said the maritime museum could draw hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors a week.

Despite sitting vacant for several years, the Evinrude Building is in "wonderful condition" and already meets hurricane wind requirements, Daniel said.

Still, the move would be expensive, likely between $5 million and $7 million.

The sale of the museum's current site, which brought in an unsolicited offer of $2.5 million last year, would cover some of the cost, as would grants, which museum members are researching now, Daniel said. The rest of the money would come from fund raising.

But not everyone is so optimistic: At least a few of the museum's 120-odd members are opposed to the move.

"It's the museum's fault that they don't have people coming in and out of there every day, it's not the building's fault," said Bruce Bronson, 76. "They've lost the principle."

Bronson, who'd like to see a bigger building on the museum's current site, said museum officials should host more programs to draw visitors.

Daniel said they would, if they had the space. "Where are people supposed to park?" he said Friday, gesturing toward about a dozen parking spots on the 1.5-acre lot.

Still others worry about the condition of the Evinrude Building.

An aide to Assistant County Administrator Jim Sherman said asbestos was removed when the county started developing the park about six years ago. But museum member Ernie Anderson, 58, said the building still is marked with signs warning about asbestos.

Anderson also worries that the new museum wouldn't have direct access to water, like the current site along the St. Lucie River. But Daniel said the museum could use a county boat ramp planned for just north of the park, as well as the facilities at the neighboring sailing center.

Even so, Anderson doesn't see how the new museum could survive. "It's obviously going to run out of money," he said.

Board members concede the move will be a challenge, "but we have to take our chances," Lersch said. "If there's a proper environment, people will come."


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