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Panel gives planetarium OK, but it’s not a done deal

A green light that a Hennepin County Board committee gave Tuesday to the Minnesota Planetarium and Space Discovery Center was an absolutely necessary step toward building a major new astronomical attraction atop the central library in Minneapolis.

But the 5-2 vote by the board’s budget committee was far from sufficient to ensure that it actually will be built. The Minnesota Planetarium Society and its many backers among science teachers and astronomy buffs have major hurdles to cross.

The county vote sets up a critical time for those backers to rally behind the planetarium in a do-or-die effort to get it built.

Over the many years the project struggled through bureaucratic snarls that had nothing to do with the merits of the plan, the planetarium lost its staff and its momentum for replacing the old facility which was razed in 2002 to make way for the downtown library.

Even the all-important fund raising campaign went on hold because potential donors wanted assurances that the project had the necessary government authorization to become a reality.

That much, the county board’s committee granted this week. The board itself won’t formally vote on the project until Oct. 7, but the budget committee’s vote was seen as the crucial step at the county level.

“We had not been able to do any fundraising without it,” said Frank Parisi, a Planetarium Society board member. “Now we can get started.”

Getting started
But getting started means re-firing engines on several fronts:

• First, county approval depends on the city of Minneapolis agreeing to help subsidize the planetarium’s operating costs. When the project was proposed years ago, the city was to own the planetarium. But that responsibility passed to the county when it took over the city’s library system this year.

The Planetarium will need some subsidy, as do most similar museums, and the county board has balked at shouldering that burden alone. The county will not pay more than $250,000 of a needed annual operating subsidy estimated at $575,000. The county and city may also the state to contribute.  

Parisi, who also directs strategic partnerships for the city, said he is optimistic about getting city approval soon because “the city has been the most enthusiastic supporter of the planetarium for years.”

• The project also needs an extension of state bonding authority. After years of intense lobbying by school kids and teachers, the state granted authority in 2005 for $22 million in bonding. That allocation is set to expire Jan. 1, 2011, and because of delays in straightening out the county-city approval, the planetarium cannot meet that deadline.

There is no apparent objection at the state level to extending the authority, and key legislators support it.

“We expect that before the authority would expire we will be well on our way to raising funds,” said Peggy Leppik, the Planetarium Society’s president. “With the city and county going forward with their commitment, it would surprise me if the Legislature did not extend the authority.”

Still, the Planetarium’s backers know from painful experience the pitfalls in the state process during tight budgeting times. The Legislature enthusiastically supported the project in 2002, but then Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed it from a state bonding bill and it took another three years to get approval.

• Beyond the $22 million in state-backed bonds, the Planetarium Society needs nearly another $22 million for construction, startup costs and an operating endowment fund. The Planetarium Society has enjoyed robust support from local donors for a travelling ExploraDome show it sponsored in the interim between planetariums.

But the sums donated have been nowhere near $22 million.

Fundraising advice
The funding drive itself will cost some $250,000 that the Planetarium Society had hoped to get from the county. The board’s budget committee did not agree to fund that step in the project, leaving the society to start from scratch raising the cash for staff and other resources necessary for a major a capital campaign.

An expert on such fundraising told county board members that several other cultural and educational institutions — including the Hennepin Theatre Trust, the Children’s Theater and the University of Minnesota — are tapping local sources in major funding drives.

Andy Currie of Currie, Ferner, Scarpetta and DeVries LLP also said that potential local donors have a limited understanding of the benefits a planetarium could bring to the state. He urged the Planetarium Society to sponsor trips to similar first-class facilities, such as the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, to spark enthusiasm for the features that could be built in Minnesota.

But that would take money too.

Fundraising is “always a daunting task,” Leppik said. Still, she remained optimistic that supporters will rally behind the project now that the county is authorizing it.

The optimism is driven by the vision for what the planetarium could bring to Minnesota at a time when science education is lagging nationwide.

Plans call for an interactive exhibit hall where students could work with real-time space images via remote telescopes and orbiting satellites. The rooftop would feature an outdoor observation deck equipped for day and nighttime sky watching. And an exposition hall would offer travelling exhibits such as images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

A centerpiece would be the Sky Theater, where up to 200 visitors at a time could sit under a 60-foot diameter dome for simulated space journeys and guided studies.   

More information about the plan is available at http://www.mplanetarium.org/.

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