Lawmakers want to slash proposed funding to operate the new, $162 million Connecticut Science Center, set to open in June.
The science center’s master plan, widely circulated to state officials during its development stage, assumed an annual state appropriation of approximately 15 percent of the center’s annual operating budget.
The operating budget was initially projected to be about $10 million, according to the center’s master plan completed in 2004. It was reduced to $9.3 million, and following $400,000 in recent cuts, to $8.9 million. At minimum, a $500,000 budget gap exists under the proposed state funding reductions.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s and Democrat’s state budget proposals would reduce its 15 percent appropriation to 2.3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
The national average for public funding of science museums in the United States is 20.6 percent, said Sean Smith, spokesman of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit representing 445 museums across the world.
“Now, more than ever, science museums would like to count on their state and local governments to support their extremely important mission of bringing science, technology and math to their community” Smith said.
The governor wants to cut the proposed $1.2 million appropriation by 83 percent, to $237,500. The Democrats want to cut it by 66 percent, to $475,000.
“We can’t fault anyone in these dire economic times,” said Cheryl Chase, chair elect of the science center’s board of trustees. “There are so many good causes vying for the state dollars. It is difficult to fault anyone.”
However, Chase, executive vice president and general counsel of Chase Enterprise, a real estate investment firm, said she wants the science center to operate as a five-star facility and that she hopes state lawmakers will reconsider the budget cuts.
Chase maintains that now — as the center launches its inaugural season — is not the time to cut back on its programming.
She points out that the continued investment in the science center not only helps to inspire young students to pursue science-related careers but also serves as an economic stimulus to the region by creating new jobs and producing revenue for area businesses.
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.
“It absolutely was an implied commitment [from the state]. Everybody knew we couldn’t build it without state money, or run it without state support. Everyone believes that we are a public/private partnership. There was no question,” said Chase, whose family contributed $1 million to the project.
The $42 million in private and corporate donations was made on the basis of a sustained public-private partnership for the cause of science education in Connecticut, said Matthew Fleury, the center’s president and chief executive officer.
Fleury and others have been quietly talking to lawmakers in hopes of receiving additional state funding. “We are working very hard to convince those with the power to make decisions about the state’s contribution to the science center.”
He said that neither of the current budget proposals would meet the center’s need. “Our challenge is to make our case, and our case if very, very strong,” said Fleury, noting that the launch of the science center coincides with the state’s new science mastery test.
Fleury said the center’s staff, “with our eyes wide open, recognized that times are difficult and we would have to tighten our belts even more. And we have made those adjustments in our operating plan.”
Staff compensation was reduced by 8 percent, which included freezing salaries at 2008 levels and reducing 401(k) matching contributions, he explained.
However, without additional funding from the state, Fleury said the center must consider other options. One option is to raise the cost of admission. Currently, admission costs $16 for adults and $13 for children, but he is reluctant to raise ticket prices to $24, the actual cost to serve each science center visitor.
Admission and ticket sales, as well as café, museum store and corporate and private event rental revenues should cover about 60 percent of the center’s operating budgets. First year attendance is expected to be about 380,000 in visitors.
Fundraising and membership purchases are expected account for another 25 percent.
Deputy House Speaker Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, is hopeful legislators will appropriate the additional funding to the center under federal stimulus money as an educational line item.
“This is especially important for the kids of Hartford, who are often denied access to facilities like this,” she said.