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Science Center plans expansion, with purchase of new property

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2009 - After owning a nearby property for more than a year, the St. Louis Science Center is now including it into plans to improve and expand its public exhibits and demonstrations. The 6.5 acre property is at Macklind and Berthold avenues.

The most likely use for the new site is for the center's executive offices, which now take up the third of the center's three floors. Doing so would free up 12,000 square feet and increase the center's current exhibit and demonstration space by half.

No thought has yet been given to exactly what the new offerings might be, but Science Center chief executive Doug King readily ticks off a "laundry list" of possibilities, consistent with what he sees as an imperative to keep up with rapidly changing scientific times.

"We'd love galleries for energy, St. Louis science and technology, health," he says. "When they built this museum ... in 1992 nobody had ever heard the word 'internet,' " King says. "Our plan was to renovate every major gallery every five years, and now people expect you to be up-to-date every day."

Lending urgency to the center's construction planning is its aging Exploradome. An inflatable 15,000-square-foot building attached to the center in 1996, it has already outlived its projected 10 years of usefulness. "We've known for some time that we need to replace it" with a permanent building, King says.

Also up for consideration is a building at Manchester Avenue and Kingshighway, a former Schnucks warehouse, that the center leases and uses for its education programs. "It's adequate now," King says, but "it wouldn't be big enough to do what we want to do in the future. We're pretty much at capacity there."

The center bought the property at Macklind and Berthold, which almost touches the southwest corner of its site at 5050 Oakland Ave., in April 2008. The center wasn't necessarily in buying mode at the time, but, says King, "the property became available, and it was a once-in a lifetime chance to get it."

Koch Air, an Evansville, Ind.-based distributor of air-conditioning equipment, put it on the market as it was consolidating its St. Louis operations at Earth City.

The site holds two buildings: one with 80,624 square feet built in 1956, the other with 38,500 square feet dating to 1985 -- both with office and warehouse space.

The larger building alone offers about as much office space as the Science Center uses now but would need work before the staff could move in. How much work and what it might cost are among the many unknowns at this early stage of planning.

King's goal is to "sort out what is realistic" and "have these decisions made by the end of the year" and perhaps executed in two to three years. The extent of the construction and its timing will be decided with an eye on the economy, he says. "So we're not in a hurry."

A "really rough guess" at this early point, he says, is that it would cost somewhere between $15 million and $18 million, to replace the Exploradome, ready the old warehouse for offices and turn the vacated office space over to new exhibits.

Raising money -- and tightening the belt

This is money the Science Center doesn't have on hand and would have to raise. St. Louis civic leader Donna Wilkinson, a former member of the Science Center's board, is helping the board evaluate the possibilities for raising it as well as beefing up the center's comparatively meager $2 million endowment, which supports its education programs.

The recent stock market sell-off drained the endowment by about 25 percent, says King. "But it didn't impact us real negatively because (the endowment) was small" to begin with.

More serious was a shortfall in fund-raising that the center chiefly blames for a deficit in 2008, when revenue of $21.5 million fell short of expenses of $24.4 million. Expenses included a non-cash charge of $4 million for depreciation, so cash flow remained positive. Not included was the $5.1 million cost of the new property, most of which was paid for by a gift, with the center assuming a mortgage for the rest.

So the center has been tightening its belt. Wages have been frozen. Staff travel and memberships have been cut, and employees have been encouraged to take voluntary unpaid vacations. The staff has been trimmed by 17 percent -- to 229 people now from 276 early last year. The reduction has been accomplished through a combination of a hiring freeze, attrition, and a retirement incentive offered to all 28 staff members over the age of 60. Sixteen accepted, leaving at the end of May, and only two will have to be replaced.

The retirements are calculated to result in annual savings of about $309,000 beginning next year.

It's King's hope not to resort to involuntary layoffs to balance this year's budget. "We're working not to do that," he says.

To make up for the employees who have left, the center is relying increasingly on volunteers -- 298 of them, compared with 187 last year -- and unpaid interns, whose numbers rose to 90 last year from eight in 2003, when the Science Center first used them.

King says these people, while requiring more planning on managers' parts, bring useful outside perspectives and provide flexibility in staffing for peak holiday, summer and weekend times.

The Science Center logged 1,071,690 visitors last year, exceeding its goal of 1 million, and 413,000, compared with a target of 361,000, through early May of this year.

The goals were set conservatively with the expectation that the closure of Highway 40/Interstate 64 would depress attendance.

"Last year we couldn't see any real impact at all" until December, when the part of the road that runs by the center was shut down, King says. But when a dinosaur exhibit opened in January, people "suddenly figured out how to get here."

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.