April 4, 2016

Science Center expands amid choppy fiscal climate

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
The Connecticut Science Center (center building with magic carpet roof) is getting a facelift.
Matt Fleury, president and CEO, The Connecticut Science Center

Connecticut Science Center attendance last five years:

2011   283,680

2012   307,249

2013   326,378

2014   347,576

2015   332,758

Source: Connecticut Science Center

The Connecticut Science Center has embarked on a long-planned expansion of exhibits and other improvements, marking the next phase of evolution for the young facility in its seventh year of operation.

The project, tagged "Science Forward," will build on and broaden the impact of what essentially has been a startup institution, said Matt Fleury, president and CEO at the distinctive glass-encased facility overlooking the Connecticut River and downtown Hartford. Among its aims is stimulating youths' interest in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM vertebrae comprising key elements of the state's economic backbone.

The expansion also aims to increase Science Center access by reducing financial barriers for field trip and individual visits, and focusing more on populations where STEM professionals are underrepresented.

The project comes, however, as the Science Center — like many organizations benefiting from state assistance — faces an uncertain financial future. While taxpayers are footing more than half of the Science Center's $16 million refresh, annual state grants to the Science Center — which make up about 5 percent of the facility's roughly $9.5 million core operating budget this year — have been declining and could be eroded further amid the state's budget woes.

While the Science Center has broken even operationally in recent years, deprecation costs caused the Science Center to report losses of $2.4 million and $2.2 million in 2013 and 2014, respectively, according to its IRS financial report. The Science Center offsets that through special capital campaigns, Fleury said, noting $5.5 million has been pledged by donors to fund the Science Forward initiative.

The new project, by refreshing and adding exhibits that are expected to boost attendance, should drive additional revenues, Fleury said.

"The Science Center has been really doing very well, where we cover or exceed the costs of operating the Science Center," he said. "The one area where that does not occur is in covering depreciation. It's not uncommon for that to be the case in smaller nonprofits running big buildings."

New additions

Fleury said he views the Science Center as having an essential role in growing a science and technology culture and enabling schools in particular to advance that through quality STEM education for STEM-aware children.

As a result, the renovations' components, to be unveiled in stages over the next five years, will be complemented by adaptable classroom and laboratory venues used as STEM learning spaces. Science Center staff also is working with the state Department of Education to train teachers to incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards into their curricula. The center also will serve as a lab for lessons learned in class.

Physical changes to the Science Center will include a reimagined Science Alley showcasing the range of scientific exploration from the deep sea to outer space, as well as an all-season butterfly conservatory and greenhouse, expanded engineering lab, and a new DNA and genomic sciences gallery.

"If you look at some of the areas we emphasize in this new plan — for example, we begin to offer a new exhibition on DNA and genomic sciences — we're clearly tuning our offerings to what promises to be an important part of the economy of the future in Connecticut," Fleury said.

The state approved $10.5 million in bond money for the roughly $16 million project, with the balance coming from private donations. About $14 million is for exhibits and facilities, with the rest for complementary teaching programs. The Center has received about $4 million of the state funds so far for planning and initial projects, with additional funds released as projects are scheduled, said Fleury, who doesn't expect the capital funding to be interrupted by the state's fiscal crisis.

Some legislative critics

However, some legislators have raised concerns about the funding.

State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) and Senate Minority Leader Pro Tempore Kevin Witkos (R-Canton) criticized the state allocation last month following the project's announcement.

"In these scary financial times, our state should focus on funding the core functions of government," they wrote. "That includes caring for those most in need and protecting vital social services. It does not include millions of dollars in handouts for a private entity."

Fleury said the state's fiscal condition generates strong opinions.

"We've, I hope, articulated well for most what we're here to do – and the state's role in this from an economic perspective was determined some years ago," he said. "It's a difficult environment, everybody's doing their best to wrestle through it and I think it's important not to take things too personally."

Annual state grants to the Science Center, however, are on the chopping block. They have amounted to about 7 percent of the Science Center's roughly $9 million to $9.5 million core operating budget in the past, but are near 5 percent now and could become much less, Fleury said. Annual earmarks were about $600,000 when the center opened, but are now approaching $500,000.

The latest cut was $27,000 in the current fiscal year ending June 30, to about $523,000, according to Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary for the Office of Policy and Management.

New state funding role

For the next fiscal year beginning July 1, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed removing the Science Center's $550,000 earmark, as he has for other nonprofits receiving certain state funding. Instead of earmarks, money would go into a pot the Science Center and other nonprofits would compete for, if the General Assembly approves the plan.

The overall pool of money organizations compete for is expected to be smaller than the amount they collectively received previously as the state continues to look for savings, Casa said.

With the state's fiscal situation, Fleury knows things won't get any easier. The Science Center already has made difficult choices over the last few years to mitigate incremental reductions in funding, he said. Those include holding the line on things like hiring and position replacements, and controlling other expenses, "a nip here, a tuck there," he said. On the revenue side, the center increased admission prices within the last couple years.

A dramatic reduction or elimination of annual state funding would entail tougher choices, he said.

The Center's revenue stream also includes ticket sales, contracts for services and private giving. The center works to offset declines in one area by growing in others, he said.

Attendance slipped 4.2 percent last year, which Fleury attributed, in part, to winter weather canceling field trips and other visits, and staff working more directly with teachers on science curriculum than with large groups of students in classrooms, which reduces attendance.

Connecticut's economic environment also presents challenges to discretionary spending and corporate philanthropy, Fleury said.

"So all of those conspire to potentially confront us with some very challenging choices, but we're here to solve those," he said. "We're going to be part of the solution to a stronger Connecticut in the near term by confronting these realities as best we can."

Funding strategy

Asked about the Science Center's funding strategy, Fleury said the center owes its existence to generous commitments by the public and private sectors.

"Our donors have been extraordinary in not only funding roughly half of the annual cost of operating the Science Center, but also investing in our future through the recently announced campaign and projects," he said. "… We do need to work very hard to assure they recognize the value of their giving and certainly, under the circumstances, we must strive ever more to do so, so that they continue to support us and so that we can widen our circle of support."

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