Museum plots ambitious expansion

Five years ago, volunteer trustees of the Schenectady Museum made an important decision about the fu
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Five years ago, volunteer trustees of the Schenectady Museum made an important decision about the future of the facility, according to current president Neil Levine.

Faced with an antiquated facility, a steady erosion of membership and a continued loss of revenue, trustees discussed whether they should just close up shop, reduce staff to the bare minimum and become, in essence, a historical society. Instead, they took “the bull by the horns, and rather than watch our investments dwindle slowly, we came up with this plan,” Levine said.

Adopted in 2004, the long-range plan, both hailed and challenged, is to build a $72 million, four-story, 114,000-square-foot science and technology center. It would be built on a parking lot on Broadway near Villa Italia. It would have a budget of $5.7 million and a staff of 77.

“The economic reality we identified five years ago was that the museum was not sustainable in its current location,” Levine said. “We couldn’t survive there. The exhibits are static, the building is too small and its visibility is bad.”

The existing 45,000-square-foot Schenectady Museum, a small museum known primarily for its planetarium, draws between 35,000 and 40,000 visitors a year — not enough to financially sustain it. The Nott Terrace Heights facility was built in 1963 and has a staff of 28 and a budget of $2.1 million for 2008.

To follow its new vision and to maintain current operations, the museum has withdrawn approximately $1 million annually from its investment portfolio since 2004, when it stood at $9.7 million.

It has spent approximately $700,000 since then on consultants, including John Manning, a current board member.

The portfolio now stands at $5 million; $700,000 of that is restricted by the provisions of the donation and cannot be used for operations.

Two former board members who asked to remain anonymous are especially concerned that the current trustees are burning through the museum’s investments to pursue the project.

At the current rate, the museum would expend its investments within five years, according to financial reviews provided by the former board members.

“The methods of achieving these goals are dangerously threatening the existence of the institution,” the former board members said.

Indeed, according to an April 2007 assessment of the museum, undertaken to help it reacquire its accreditation, the Schenectady Museum “at this time is not prepared to take on the monumental task of building, professionally staffing and providing programming to a new museum.”

Levine does not dispute this statement.

“When we have sufficient funding, when we know we will get to the finish line, we will hire the appropriate staff,” he said. He added that the museum has addressed 95 percent of the requirements to become reaccredited.

The former board members wanted the board to pursue a third option: “Live within our means, become a science center but do it on a small scale until we get our house in order.”

They asked other trustees to “look at something we can afford and raise the money for it. This train is rushing down the track, and we wanted to slow it down and see how to get from point A to B.”

The board never fully considered the third option, they said: “They have ignored the people who have supported them for years.” As a result, the two people resigned over that and other issues.

Going for the gusto

Current board member Robert Bylancik, who serves as treasurer, said the board is “totally aware of the financial situation of the museum. The whole principle we are operating on is to build a new science center for the region. There will be a new facility in place — before we spend the endowment — within 18 months to three years.”

New board member John Schneiter, who will attend his first meeting this week, said he fully supports the plan to build a new science center. “It’s a big goal, but the only way to go after big goals is to go after them,” he said.

Schneiter helped found GlobalSpec, a 230-employee high-tech company in Troy that he calls an engineer search engine.

“This is a natural place to think of a world-class science center, which will initiate a spark in learning math and sciences and have a strong economic impact on the area,” he said.

He said that the museum is obtaining support from several large and small corporations in the community to donate toward construction of the facility.

Levine said the third option proposed by the former board members is not viable.

“We can’t close the $1-million-plus gap. We need 300,000 people [per year] to close the gap,” he said.

Cutting the size of the project in half won’t help the museum survive, Levine said.

“You won’t attract visitors to support operations,” he said. “The national experts we hired looked at the demographics and gave us the size facility with type of product offerings to support our operations.”

Levine said the museum today is better run than it was in 2004 and is seeing an increase in admissions and in program revenue. But even this is not enough to help, he said. While admission income has increased, its revenues and membership continue to decline while its operating expenses have increased.

Moving forward

The board hired national consultants to help trustees make the dream of a new facility a reality, Levine said. The board has paid the consultants, among them museum trustee John Manning, a total of $700,000 over the past four years. Manning, the former head of Metroplex, worked about eight hours a week overseeing the other consultants.

Levine said hiring a trustee as a consultant does not constitute a conflict of interest.

“The law allows it to occur so long as it is fully disclosed and he does not vote on issues related to the project,” he said.

Levine remains confident the museum will raise enough money to build a new facility before depleting its investments.

“We are one of the community’s better-off not-for-profits” regarding investment portfolios, he said.

The museum is conducting a “quiet campaign” to raise money, identifying key donors for solicitation. When the museum has obtained enough pledges, it will launch the public campaign, Levine said.

“I’m telling you it’s going to happen. We will get our funding over the next 18 months,” he said.

The goal is to replenish the endowment to $12 million and to support the new facility through paying customers and fundraising.

If anything, Levine remains enthusiastic about the plan, which he outlined in detail Wednesday to The Gazette.

“I feel so incredibly strongly that this is the right concept for this community. It will have a huge impact on the region,” he said.

Added attractions

Marketing studies and economic impact analyses indicate that the new facility would draw 300,000 people annually from about 18 counties in the area and would generate $3 million annually in taxes and $50 million in local economic benefits, Levine said.

“There will be nothing like it within 150 miles,” he said.

The new facility will also include the Challenger Learning Center, a space simulator that teaches math and science to students, and the Dudley Observatory, an astronomical research facility. It also would contain a state-of-art planetarium with the latest generation of digital-projection technology and would accommodate traveling exhibits, which help keep consumer interest fresh, Levine said.

“It is going to be this incredibly rich, diverse center of astronomy and education,” he said.

The Challenger Learning Center consists of three simulators that run three-hour missions. One simulator is of Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, another is of a model shuttle and the third is of a space lab.

The Albany-Schoharie-Schenectady BOCES would operate the center and market it to area schools, as the program ties into science and math curriculums.

It is estimated that the center will draw more than 12,000 students and another 12,000 other visitors annually who would pay admission.

The center is named for the Challenger space shuttle that exploded on liftoff in 1986, claiming the lives of its seven astronauts. The project has been under development since 1999 and has offered numerous startup dates. It was originally proposed for the county airport but failed to secure funding.

The Dudley Observatory operates a museum in Schaffer Heights on Nott Terrace, catering primarily to historians and researchers by appointment only. It is an observatory in name only; researchers packed away their powerful telescope in 1976, deciding to focus on astronomy education instead.

Levine said the synergy of the different groups working together would help establish the facility as a center of learning and would help spur interest in the sciences.

“We want that structure to be here for companies to take advantage of,” he said. “It will help with economic development.”

Despite his optimism about the project’s success, Levine remains a realist: “I know it is not a guarantee. We have contingency plans to make sure this institution survives” should the project take longer to complete than planned or not reach its goals. “The museum would not be what it is today; it would be the historic society concept,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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