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Science Center Scaled Back
Dimensions Pared By 10 Percent

December 16, 2004
By TOM PULEO , Courant Staff Writer

The board planning the Connecticut Center for Science & Exploration trimmed the project's dimensions by 10 percent Wednesday - a move that acknowledges financial struggles at science centers nationally that have forced some to close exhibition space.

The good news: Science center President Theodore S. Sergi predicted the facility in downtown Hartford would open debt-free with a $15 million endowment by the winter of 2007/08. The groundbreaking would take place two years earlier.

Under the slimmer configuration, Cesar Pelli & Associates would design a building of 144,000 square feet at the 2.5-acre site at the northern edge of Adriaen's Landing. The original plan had envisioned a 160,000-square-foot building.

"We want to be prudent and make the right economic choices on the front end," Sergi said after a board of trustees meeting in New Haven at which the vote was taken. "It will be a little smaller, with a little smaller operating budget. We can always add later."

The decision reflects that some - though not all - science centers elsewhere in the country have experienced lagging attendance and other financial problems.

In Columbus, Ohio, for example, the Center for Science and Industry recently shut down 32,000 square feet of exhibit space and now is seeking to rent the vacant wing for commercial offices. Sagging attendance also forced the center to slash its annual budget by one-third, to $10 million, lay off 67 people and close on Mondays and Tuesdays.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey is planning a $107 million expansion that would double the exhibit space.

The trustees approved a new master plan that predicts an annual operating cost of $8 million to $9 million. The numbers assume on-site attendance of 400,000 visitors annually with an additional 100,000 school children served off-site in their schools.

They also assume that roughly 55 percent of annual operating costs will be paid by revenue from admissions, membership, gift shop, concessions, rental and special events. The remaining 45 percent would come from annual fund-raising gifts from private sources; local, state and federal governments; and the use of endowment earnings.

Earlier projections had put attendance at 350,000 to 500,000 people a year.

The approximately 48,000 square feet of exhibit space would include areas devoted to the Connecticut River; human health; the science of sports, arts and culture; and Connecticut inventions. The center also would include a 9,500-square-foot giant screen theater with 250 seats.

The board announced it has raised an additional $2 million - meaning that about $25 million still needs to be found for the $150 million facility.

Henry McKinnell, Pfizer Inc.'s CEO and co-chairman of the science center trustees, said he would like all trustees to make their financial contributions by the next meeting in April. Then McKinnell would turn his sights to the large foundations that typically fund science centers.

The new master plan further emphasized McKinnell's earlier decision that put the center's primary focus on hands-on learning as opposed to the earlier tourist-based "attraction" model.

"The most important thing to realize is that we are building an institution - not a building and a bunch of exhibits," McKinnell said.

Sergi said the 400,000 projection would not be changed by switching from an exhibit to an educational focus. He said the figure includes 100,000 school children visiting the site along with Connecticut families, tourists and conventioneers from the new Connecticut Convention Center scheduled to open at Adriaen's in June 2005.

"We think we can be both entertaining and educational," he said.

The science center would become the second biggest in New England, behind the Boston Museum of Science (420,000 square feet).

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.

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