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Connecticut Science Center In Hartford To Open Friday


June 07, 2009


That was the word used more than a decade ago to describe the 2-acre parcel of land wedged in a corner near I-91 and the Founders Bridge, the back seat of a billion-dollar state plan for a stadium, a convention center, new housing and a revived riverfront.

"Even in the Adriaen's Landing master plan, it was 'attraction,'" said Matt Fleury, the center's president and CEO. "Didn't even know what it was going to be."

Now you know.

This week, more than a decade after Adriaen's Landing was proposed, the "attraction" will open as the Connecticut Science Center, the latest piece of the state's effort to jump-start its capital city. From his new office, surrounded by unhung artwork and the promises of 1998, Fleury can see the result of 10 years of work and change.

To the left are the new Downtown Marriott Hotel and the Connecticut Convention Center. Down the way, construction is finally happening at the retail district called Front Street. Beyond the Old State House, Fleury can see the Hartford 21 building. In one of the apartments, a couple of floors down from the top, is his home with his wife and their new twin boys.

"Downtown Hartford when there's a basketball game is crazy, it's wonderful," Fleury said. The riverfront is the same way. "But you have to wait for the event. Only the Science Center offers that day-in-and-day-out attraction for families and for visitors to come to Hartford."

"The expectations are high," Fleury said of the center's location in Hartford. "The expectations are high that the Science Center is the final piece, that it will turn the light on and suddenly everything we hoped would happen would happen."

But he also has other expectations for the center — ones set years ago when it was just a vacant parcel and an idea.

"My point was to make this a truly excitable, defining moment in the lives of all fifth-graders," said former Gov. John G. Rowland, who once called the project the "juice" at Adriaen's Landing and was one of its initial big backers. "Every fifth-grader in the entire state of Connecticut should go through that Science Center and dream of going to the moon, curing cancer, doing something in pharmaceutical research … something they never would have imagined in their lives."

The $162 million, Cesar Pelli-designed Connecticut Science Center opens Friday after eight years of fundraising, designs and name changes. Its opening is a step forward for the downtown development effort that has seen both victories and losses.

Most notably, while the Connecticut Convention Center and new housing have opened and are faring reasonably well, the fate of new retail downtown is still an open question. Case in point: the still largely vacant retail space at the base of Hartford 21 and the XL Center.

The Science Center has faced obstacles of its own, including financial ones. Center officials still don't know whether they'll get the operational subsidy from the state that they need to balance the center's budget.

As a structure and a venue, the Science Center is also designed to help the city rediscover itself. Like Front Street — intended to connect the activity at the Marriott and the Convention Center to the Wadsworth Atheneum and the rest of the city up the block — the Science Center is designed to get folks here and then connect them to Riverfront Plaza, the hotel, the Convention Center, across Front Street, and, finally, to the rest of downtown.

"To make it all fit and make it convenient for parking, that really was the concept," Rowland said.

While the former governor recalls meetings of what he called "the A-team" — developers, planners, policy folks, and others — it's not the bricks-and-mortar part that gets him excited years later.

It's recalling a 2000-something conversation with then Science Center board Chairman and former Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell that crystallized Rowland's concept of what the Science Center could mean for the state.

"He said that he's got five lawyers on staff whose only job is to process visas for all the scientists and researchers out there that they're bringing over from the former Soviet Union" to work at Pfizer, Rowland said. "I said to him, 'Why are we recruiting guys that are driving taxi cabs in the former Soviet Union when it should be Connecticut' [scientists]?"

"The answer was because they weren't qualified," Rowland said. The country's science students just weren't matching up to their international counterparts.

That's when, Rowland said, the idea for the Science Center took off. With the plan for a football stadium on this side of the river dead, Rowland wanted to see a science center as a magnet school, the kind of place that would be a destination for every fifth-grader around the state.

He envisioned a "mother ship," a "rite of passage" for Connecticut students, where buses would ferry kids back and forth to school and science would be cool. And it wouldn't be called a museum. Museums are about the past, Rowland said. A science center is about the future.

Today, education is at the heart of the center's mission and its structure. From curb cuts for school buses to snack rooms with cubbies to classrooms for teaching, the center as a building invites students to come and learn, Fleury said.

Starting June 16, classrooms of kids from around the state will begin making their way to the 144,000-square-foot center. Their experience will be tailored to match their science curriculum in school, Fleury said.

Once inside, students and visitors can tour 40,000 square feet of exhibits on topics including the Connecticut River, state innovations and inventions, personal health, and the physics of motion. There's also a 3D digital theater with a 30- by 40-foot screen and 203 seats. And, in keeping with its Connecticut-centric theme, the center's café will serve locally grown food.

Center officials hope to log 350,000 visitors in the first year of operation.

To keep people — students, parents, others — coming back, the center has to stay current and forward-looking. To that end, there will be gallery scientists on staff, helping the center to react nimbly to events like the recent Hubble repair shuttle mission, or the contaminated water scare in Greater Hartford.

"How do you go beyond that and keep it as fresh as the science that shows up in the media?" asks Hank Gruner, the center's director of programs. "You do it with people."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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