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Science Center Flies Past Bumps

Dan Uhlinger

January 18, 2010

After a little more than a half year since its opening last June, the leaders of the Connecticut Science Center believe it is off to a great start in meeting their expectations.

Although state funding was significantly slashed in July due to the budget deficit, the science center surpassed its attendance goal for 2009. By Jan. 1, there were 206,711 visitors. The number, which represented 7,210 member households, was 2 percent over the goal set by center officials, said Aaron Wartner, director of marketing and communications, said.

“I don’t think you’ll find a lot of businesses, much less nonprofits that could have projected their first six months of existence in this climate that closely. We’re proud of that,” said Matthew Fleury, the center’s chief operating officer.

Fleury said membership sales also have been very strong, also exceeding the science center’s goal. The cost of a membership ranges from $75 for an individual up to $275 for a large family.

School group attendance has been better than anticipated with many groups coming from western Massachusetts, he added.

“That’s been very successful for us and very much a surprise,” Wartner said.

“We really are focused on making sure that every time people turn out they feel there’s something new and exciting going on in the science center, a place that continues to be vibrant and appealing,” Fleury said.

“The first six months of our existence here have been very rewarding, very challenging, and we’re looking back a little bit to say what can we learn from what we’ve experienced here, but also looking forward and saying we’re six months in for what he hope will be a long, long existence,” Fleury added.

Unexpected Challenges

Among their challenges, Fleury pointed to a lawsuit the science center filed late last year against the architectural firm that designed its distinctive, sweeping roof. State inspectors noticed after the center was built that the two overhanging sides of the “magic carpet” roof were sagging. The design flaw forced a months-long repair project that delayed the opening of the science center until last June.

Progress has been made in trying to resolve the lawsuit and lawyers for the science center are hoping that a mediation effort will result in a favorable settlement that would avoid a costly trial in the lawsuit, Fleury said.

Another challenge that the science center has had to deal with was the loss of much of the anticipated state funding due to the state budget deficit crisis.

Officials had hoped that the state would provide funding totaling about $1.2 million, or about 15 percent of the science center’s annual operating budget.

“Obviously, things have changed and the state has had a devil of a time in paying its bills. And we understand that,” Fleury said, adding that he believes the center, at this point, stands to receive about $650,000.

Fleury said the science center has had to make up the shortfall by tightening its business plan. Its operating budget was cut from $8.4 million to $7.9 million.

“We implemented a savings plan in September to reduce our operating costs by about 10 percent for the rest of the year and we’ll carry the bulk of those expense cuts into and through 2010,” Fleury said. “We are setting the marker as we operate day by day.”

“Rather, by and large, having to lay off people or reduce services, I believe we have the luxurious ability to delay the expansion of certain things we do,” he said. “We’ve held off on filling certain positions in our programmatic areas, particularly the educational area. We’ve ramped up some other things more slowly. And the administrative staff is skinnier than it would have been.”

The science center, part of the state’s Adriaen’s Landing project intended to revitalize Hartford, received $120 million from the state to construct the $162 million landmark building. The balance came from donations.

Wartner stressed that the science center is run by a nonprofit organization and its mission is to be educational as well as entertaining.

Inspiring students and sparking their interest in science is a main part of the center’s mission.

Providing special classroom and live science experiences, as well as partnering with organizations to promote careers in science is a major goal, officials say.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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