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Connecticut Science Center Sees First Year As Success, Despite Budget Hits

Steven Goode

June 13, 2010

After nearly a decade of planning, fundraising and construction, the doors finally opened last June at the Connecticut Science Center, a project envisioned as the crown jewel of the Adriaen's Landing downtown redevelopment project.

Supporters said the center would lure visitors from around the state and the region to Riverfront Recapture's improvements along the Connecticut River and to the Connecticut Convention Center, the nearby Downtown Marriott hotel and the rest of downtown.

But there were questions. Would the $162 million science center, a stone's throw from the Connecticut River, bring in the number of paying customers and annual memberships it needed to sustain itself, especially since it was opening in the middle of a recession?

And would the state, facing a budget deficit, come through with its promised operational subsidy?

As the science center celebrated its first anniversary Saturday, those questions have largely been answered at least in the short term.

"It's almost exactly what we modeled," said Matt Fleury, the center's president and CEO, even though opening during a recession "has thrown projections out the window."

Fleury said the center had projected 350,000 visitors in the first year. He estimated that, as of Saturday, about 365,000 visitors have come through the doors. That includes about 30,000 annual memberships representing about 9,000 households and 85,000 students on field trips from school systems in Connecticut and from Boston, New York City, New Hampshire, Vermont and the Albany, N.Y., region.

More than 8,000 Hartford students also visited for free as a result of grants, and the center served about 10,000 more people around the state through educational-outreach programs teachers can use in the classroom. The venue also hosted about 150 corporate events.

"We became the biggest attraction in Hartford in 12 months," Fleury said, "and we're proud of that."

The number of visitors, even during a poor economy, helped the center remain in the black and on budget this fiscal year.

But science center officials switched into belt-tightening mode about three months after opening when the state, which had committed to subsidizing 15 percent of the center's planned $8.5 million operating budget, reduced that to 7 percent.

The change, made necessary by the state's budget problems, reduced funding by more than $600,000 and prompted science center officials to scale back hiring, renegotiate contracts with vendors and increase their fundraising campaign's goal by $300,000 to make up for the lost revenue. Members of the board of trustees personally contributed $150,000 to that campaign, said Aaron Wartner, the center's director of marketing and communication.

"We had planned on $8.5 million but saw the writing on the wall as the recession took hold," Fleury said. "We knew that government and individual support would be impacted, but by being new we could adjust."

Because the state works with a two-year budget, the science center will receive the 7 percent subsidy in the next fiscal year, as well.

State Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said it's important that the state return to its 15 percent commitment in the future to keep the center going, attract visitors downtown and provide learning opportunities to city children and families that they might not have otherwise.

"The benefits far outweigh the costs," Fonfara said.

And although the Front Street entertainment and retail portion of Adriaen's Landing is still being developed, city business owners say the center has helped the downtown.

"Their addition fills another niche at Adriaen's Landing," said Jim Lewis, executive director of Business for Downtown Hartford. "It's doing what they wanted it to."

Mike Zaleski, head of the Downtown Business Improvement District, said that it is difficult to determine how much business the science center has brought downtown, but that its presence is having an impact.

"The more people get comfortable with coming downtown, the better it is for everybody," Zaleski said.

Fleury said the center has faced and overcome several problems in its inaugural year, such as crowds that broke attendance records the week after Christmas.

"That certainly strained our operation," Fleury said.

He said the center also didn't expect the response it received from school groups interested in taking advantage of four specially equipped laboratories staffed by scientists. As a result, the center has opened on Mondays just to accommodate school groups.

The larger than estimated number of memberships was another pleasant surprise, Fleury said.

Cheryl Chase, chairwoman of the center's board of trustees, said the they spent a lot of time focusing on attendance numbers month-to-month as they braced for a downturn that never materialized.

"It was a constant, 'Is this month going to be the same as last?' " she said. "It was relief more than surprise."

Chase said that the board was pleased with the first year of operation, but that there is always room for improving the experience for visitors.

"We need to constantly make it a new adventure," she said.

Fleury said the center will continue to look for new attractions, such as the "Robots + Us" exhibit that opened at the end of May, which allows visitors to build their own small robots, and the "Legends of Flight 3D" movie that will open in July.

The center also offers an unusual simulated fly-over of the surface of Mars.

For Fleury, keeping the science center's exhibits fresh and unique will result in repeat visitors who can spread the word about a venue he said offers "science in a way that people have not seen before."

"On one hand we want and need to see repeat business," he said. "But the majority of the state still hasn't come."

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.
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