Florida's foundation a contrast to Mississippi's

jphampton@sunherald.comJanuary 12, 2013 

  • Correction
    A photograph of students in an airboat that accompanied a story about the Marine Resources Development Foundation was not at the foundation's Marine Lab.

Imagine a foundation dedicated to enhancing and protecting marine resources. It offers classes to people in elementary school and beyond. It teams with corporations to make a remote-controlled mini-sub accessible to hundreds of scientists.

Its finances are an open book; its 990 forms are filed annually with the Internal Revenue Service. To help pay its bills, it solicits donations of boats, which it then sells.

And it rehabbed a burned-out restaurant-marina complex into its campus -- a place for visiting students and scientists to stay while they research and dream. It runs two web sites to publicize its works.

This is not Bill Walker's secretive Marine Resources Foundation in Biloxi.

This is the Marine Resources Development Foundation of Key Largo, Fla.

Few knew

Walker's foundation operated largely out of the public eye. Vernon Asper, chairman of the Commission on Marine Resources, which oversees the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, didn't know it existed until the Sun Herald reported on it. And Asper and the other commissioners are supposed to be overseeing the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, which the foundation says it is supporting.

Walker was head of the DMR until the commission suspended him after seeing some of the results of the ongoing state and federal audits. The Sun Herald has been unable to find anyone who can say specifically how the foundation supports the DMR. It does lease the DMR two boats, which it obtained from boat donation programs operated by other organizations.

Another difference is age. The Mississippi foundation was created in 2004. The Florida foundation was started in 1970 -- about the same time as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The foundation and NOAA would go on to work on a series of programs studying scuba divers. It also worked with NASA to study the effects of longer space flights by putting aquanauts in its undersea habitat.

Its underwater classroom has been on the ocean floor since 1984.

It pays to publicize

It has two websites -- mrdf.org, about the foundation, and marinelab.org, about the educational program it offers.

"Part of our mission is bringing awareness and knowledge to the public, and one way we do that is through the educational programs," said Ginnett Hughes, senior vice president for program services.

She said it's not hard to sell students and teachers on its Marine Lab experience.

"I point to our longevity," she said. "We have been around since 1970, in this particular facility since 1985," she said. "I point to success with educational programs. I'm proud that many of our students have chosen to go into science as a career."

Those educational programs also are the primary source of funding for the foundation. She said it receives some grants and some money from boat sales. (Interested in a 1987 60-foot houseboat? It has one for $275,000. It's no secret. It's on the foundation's website.)

The foundation's 2011 form 990 filed in 2012 with the IRS shows total revenue of $1.6 million -- more than $1.5 million of it coming from its programs.

No judgments or liens were found on the Florida Secretary of State's Office website, nor were there any complaints listed by the Better Business Bureau.

Word of mouth helps

Hughes said its image and trust are invaluable as it entices people from all over the United States to take classes at Marine Lab.

"About half are from Florida, about half from the rest of the U.S.," Hughes said. Students and teachers, she said, are the foundation's best advertisement.

"Our seventh grade students look forward to this experience all year, and for some, many years," wrote Sandy Downing of St. Luke's Episcopal School in Mobile, who has accompanied students there 12 times. "From the time we arrive and depart, we are led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. Safety is a number one priority of our parents and the MarineLab meets all of these concerns. The accommodations and meals are excellent. Snorkeling in the coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves with their classmates gives the students the ability to explore and learn the ecosystem in a way that could not be experienced on a leisure family vacation. The evening activities and discussions enhance the student's knowledge of marine science as well as give our teachers an understanding of what their students learned during the school year. I highly recommend this once in a lifetime experience from a parent's perspective and as a chaperone."

It's the kind of testimonial Hughes loves to receive.

"We go to teachers conferences," she said. "But it's primarily word of mouth. People talk about us because they like us."

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