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Henderson science center officials on aggressive plan to raise $30 million

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Courtesy of HKS Architects and Tate Snyder Kimsey RAFI

The planned location of the 5-acre Henderson Space and Science Center is outlined in red on the preliminary site plan unveiled Tuesday, May 24, 2011. The final location of the museum and Union Village elements are subject to change as the master plan is developed.

Board member Jack Clark listens to a speaker Tuesday during the Henderson Space and Science Center Advisory Board meeting.

Board member Jack Clark listens to a speaker Tuesday during the Henderson Space and Science Center Advisory Board meeting.

Thirty million dollars over five years.

That’s how much money Henderson Space and Science Center officials say they need to raise to build the state-of-the-art facility on five acres near U.S. 95 and Galleria Drive.

The financial plan was created by Gallagher Associates, the company that helped raise money for the nearly half-billion-dollar Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Las Vegas. It calls for the science center to raise $4 million in donations in the next year.

Although the goal may seem lofty in a region still reeling from the effects of the recession and without an established history of supporting cultural endeavors, science center Executive Director Jack Clark he’s confident the money is out there.

“Despite the economy, there are still people who care about our community, who care about the kids, who care about education,” he said. “There’s far more than $30 million that can be raised. The Smith Center is a beautiful example of what can happen when you have partnerships between the community at large, corporate sponsors and government.”

The plan was presented to the Henderson City Council last week, after the council requested in June that center officials provide plans for a way forward, as the past two years have shown few signs of progress.

The project has been in discussion for decades, but finally took off in 2009 after a commitment of $25 million and a land gift from the city. The center has been a sometimes-contentious issue among city council members, resulting in split votes on funding decisions. The council has indicated it doesn’t want to be on the hook for ongoing financial support outside the initial $25 million investment.

The center was initially projected to cost $63 million, but Clark said he’s focusing on driving the price down to the $50 million range without sacrificing quality.

In 2009, it was predicted that it would take five years to raise money, design and build the center, but that projection has been pushed back at least two more years.

Since then, a board of directors has been formed and a few staff members have been hired.

Two temporary exhibits have been staged at Galleria at Sunset mall with mixed results. The first exhibit, an exploration of the North and South Poles, was a success, drawing nearly 25,000 attendees.

But the second, an exhibit exploring noble gases and the periodic table, struggled, drawing only about 5,000 visitors — half the amount expected — and closing with a loss $40,000 higher than anticipated.

The center’s first executive director, Raymond Shubinski, left the project in May and was replaced by Clark, a former city council member who has supported bringing a science center to Southern Nevada for two decades.

Clark said much of the work has been going on behind the scenes. Board members are making connections in Henderson in the initial fundraising push and have visited several science centers and museums nationwide for ideas and inspiration on how to build a similar facility.

“We need this to be successful. To be successful we need to do as much homework as possible. We need to learn what works and what doesn’t work. We can’t guess,” he said.

The center is operating using interest from the city’s $25 million gift and has taken $1.2 million of the principal to hire an architect and other consultants. An initial conceptual design is expected by December.

The deliberate pace isn’t out of the norm for the industry, where centers often take up to a decade to go from an initial idea to official opening.

A $25 million museum in Salt Lake City that blends art, science and technology is set to open in two weeks after initially being approved in 2003.

The $165 million Connecticut Science Center opened in Hartford, in 2009 after three years of construction and five years of planning.

“The building is only a tiny part of it. There are a lot of pieces,” said Larry Hoffer, spokesman for the Association of Science-Technology Centers. “Securing funding is a process, and especially in this economy, it’s challenging. It’s working with your community and making sure you have the support of government and business. The average gestation for a project like this is five to 10 years.”

•••

Building a science center is one thing, but keeping it open long-term presents its own challenges.

With a community of 2 million people and millions of visitors each year, Southern Nevada has a sizable base from which to draw attendance.

But to get people in the door — and keep them coming back — a science center must find a way to be relevant to the history and local interests of its environs, said John Good, president of Las Vegas-based Exhibit IQ, which produces museum exhibits.

Good suggested the following ideas for making a local science center unique:

• Draw on the region’s history in extreme engineering — the building of Hoover Dam or a megaresort, for example.

• Emphasize the valley’s connection with nature, or its background as a testing ground for technology such as atomic bombs or electric cars.

“In the last big building boom of science centers across the country, there was this idea that they all needed to be modeled around some leading examples,” Good said. “It was sort of a McDonald’s approach, (which) worked initially, but now we’re getting to the point where it’s important the museum is relevant to the community it is in.”

Clark said the board’s planning has focused on making the museum interactive, meaning people learn hands-on and walk away with new experiences. The center will also work to bring in new exhibits on a regular basis to keep the museum fresh and encourage repeat visits.

“The problem when you look at most museums … there’s a ton of stuff to see, but not much to do,” Clark said. “When you look at places where there’s plenty to do, you learn at your own pace. You get to experiment. We want people to walk out of our center having learned something.”

But relying solely on admission revenue likely won’t pay the center’s ongoing costs, making other sources of revenue crucial.

The center would likely have space for private events, which in other markets provides up to 60 percent of revenue.

Councilwoman Kathleen Vermillion was initially a critic of the project, but after touring museums in California with Henderson science center board members, she now says she’s excited for the project, seeing it as an asset that will serve the whole community.

“When I really delved in and I looked at the books, I looked at the numbers and I walked away from it, (I saw) that not only is the museum going to self-sustain, it’s going to produce revenue,” she said. “This is community enrichment, it affects everybody.”

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