Planetarium opening a gamble

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July 14, 2003 // UPDATED 10:58 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

In the best of all possible worlds, the new Downtown Central Library and the Minnesota Planetarium & Space Discovery Center would open at the same time -- it would even seem logical.

But unless planetarium design work starts this fall -- before necessary legislative funding could possibly be obtained -- it will not open when the library should, in June 2006. That would disrupt library patrons at a time when they should be celebrating.

"You don't get the synergy of one grand opening for two facilities," said Richard Johnson, Central Library coordinator. "Thousands of people will come to the opening of the new library. You would love to take them up in the elevator [to the new planetarium]."

The planetarium's future hinges on next year's state bonding bill. Johnson has submitted a request for $24 million of the planetarium's $28 million budget.

State money, especially in tight fiscal times, is no sure thing. If planetarium planners wait to start design work until the legislature and governor say yes next spring -- if they say yes -- the city could not open the planetarium until December 2006. That's six months after the library opens.

If the planetarium is delayed, it means workers will be hoisting steel to the top of the library at a time when the library's first four floors are getting the final touches of drywall and paint, Johnson said. When the library opens, workers still would be taking equipment and material to the planetarium while library patrons are using the facility.

Work would be "out of sequence and not cost-effective," Johnson said. "We would try to minimize disruption."

One way to lift the curtain on both projects: gamble. The city could spend money now to keep a simultaneous opening on track, but with no assurance it would find the rest of the planetarium money.

Diane Hofstede, co-chair of the New Central Library Implementation Committee and Library Board member, said the Library Board has been engrossed in cutting its 2004 budget and has not had time to focus on other issues, such as the looming scheduling question.

And complicating an already complicated picture: no one knows who will own the planetarium -- and who would be responsible for any operating shortfalls.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, co-chair of the Implementation Committee, said the Library Board has had its plate full and there has been resistance to taking on the planetarium.

"Eventually there may be two clients for this complicated project," he said. "It's a question we have been wrestling with for the last year. We are only beginning to make progress."

The project had faced and solved problems in the past, the mayor said. "We will keep doing it."

Planetarium on hold

The state has already provided $1 million for planetarium pre-design and design work, Johnson said. The money is approximately half-spent, but the project is on hold. The money is insufficient to complete the design.

Johnson put the brakes on the project for two major reasons, he said. First, the city risked planning a planetarium the state would not fund. If the state provided partial funding, planners would have to toss out drawings and start over on a scaled-back project.

The second problem is who would own the planetarium. The Library Board had financial responsibility for the old planetarium, Johnson said. The newly formed Minnesota Planetarium Society, a non-profit, will run the new planetarium. Less clear is who covers any deficits.

"The client has yet to be formally identified," Johnson said.

If the library is the financial backstop, it needs to be involved in the design.

"We have not had that level of conversation yet," Johnson said. "I don't want to spend the state grant and design this thing based on a bunch of assumptions -- an assumption the state will give us everything we've asked for, and the assumption the ultimate owner will like what we've designed."

The planetarium has already had a ride on the financial rollercoaster.

In 2002, the city sought $30 million in state bonding for the planetarium, originally designed for the library's skyway level, where it would have linked with the children's department. The legislature approved $9.5 million.

Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed the bonding bill, however. With money uncertain, planners moved the planetarium to the top of the library last year. Space limitations meant downsizing the project, eliminating several thousand square feet, said Bob Bonadurer, planetarium director. The price tag also dropped, from $34 million to $28 million.

The current planetarium plans still have a 250-seat theater, but the screen is reduced from 70 feet to 60 feet, he said.

The planetarium plans still include the North Star Observatory, with live satellite links, a rooftop observatory and the virtual immersion environment that City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) refers to as the Star Trek "holodeck."

Gone from the plans are the 5,000 square-foot Expo Hall, an area to display traveling exhibits from places like the Smithsonian Institute, and the 3,000-square-foot Challenger Center, a teen learning center where groups simulate a launch and orbit and trouble-shoot problems, Bonadurer said.

Hofstede said the planetarium issue could come up at the next Implementation Committee meeting, Tuesday, July 15.

"It certainly appears if we don't receive funding very, very soon, that it would be questionable whether it [the planetarium] could open when the library opens," Hofstede said.