Proposal would double fundraising needs for planetarium

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February 1, 2010
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes
In a shaky economy, it’s hard enough just to raise money. Try watching thought-to-be-secured dollars fall away.

That’s what backers of the Minneapolis Planetarium project have been doing in the weeks since Gov. Tim Pawlenty presented his 2010 bonding proposal, a bill that would delete $22 million that’s been guaranteed to the Minneapolis Planetarium Society since 2005. Without the bonding, the society is looking at more than double the amount of money they need to raise to get the long-planned project up and running.

“If the $22 million goes away, I think we have to really reconsider how everything looks,” said Angus Vaughan, president of the Minnesota Planetarium Society.

The proposed planetarium would be a $35 million facility with a 60-foot dome at its core. Its plans have been around for about as long as those of Downtown’s Central Library; the idea is to construct it atop the four-year-old building. (The library costs almost $2 million more to build to make that possible.)

In 2005, the Planetarium Society secured the aforementioned $22 million in guaranteed bonding, and it was given until this year to raise the remainder of the necessary funds.

But then the bottom dropped out of the Minneapolis library system, which led to the system’s merger with Hennepin County’s. That process, kinks of which are still being worked out, “really put us in the backseat of a lot of people willing to write checks,” Vaughan said. “They weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be.”

Because of those external complications — as well as the weak economy — the Legislature last May chose to extend the fundraising deadline to 2012.

“That affirmed the Legislature was still supportive of the project,” said Kerri Pearce Ruch, a policy aide in Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman’s office. “I think the fact that it is on Gov. Pawlenty’s cut list now is just unfortunate.”

Pawlenty’s argument is that it’s sensible.

After a contentious 2009 budget process and November projections that the state is looking at a new $1.2 billion shortfall, he said this year’s bonding priorities need to stick to their true spirit. That means a focus on projects with statewide, or at least regional, benefits, he said. Pawlenty’s $685 million proposal also emphasizes upkeep over new construction.

“We tried to strike a balance of building something or renovating something now with the financial reality that bonding costs money,” State Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson said.

That leaves the planetarium’s future in limbo. Still, Vaughan said he isn’t overtly worried. He said there has been progress in fundraising, and if he can prove that to the Legislature, its version of a bonding bill should bring the $22 million back.

Vaughan likely won’t emphasize to legislators the amount of money that’s been brought in during his time as the Planetarium Society’s president. (When he was hired last April, the project had $19 million to go. Ten months later, it has $18.4 million to go.) But Vaughan will say that important contacts have been made.

“We have had some fantastic conversations with a variety of corporations and major individuals,” he said, groups and people who are now awaiting the outcome of the legislative session.

Vaughan said the project also continues to have backing from key legislators, including Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A) and Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60).

As for the county, which now owns the Central Library, it wants to see the planetarium succeed. After the library system merger, it was essentially handed the project’s future, and despite some hesitancy among the county board, commissioners in 2008 committed to as much as $250,000 per year to help finance the society’s fundraising expenses.

“You know, it’s a tough time to raise money,” Commissioner Dorfman said. “But it’s a unique project that has a lot of support from the community. So we want to give it a chance.”