Museum Money

The UA's soon-to-be-built science center looks for ways to balance the books

The University of Arizona's downtown science center is slated for a 2012 grand opening. But will higher anticipated admission charges prevent many Tucsonans from visiting?

Currently, the space-focused Flandrau planetarium on campus charges $7.50, while the Arizona State Museum (ASM) at Park Avenue and University Boulevard suggests a $3 donation. But a business plan prepared last year for a new combined facility, to be located near the Santa Cruz River, recommends considerably steeper prices.

For the project to break even financially, the report suggests an adult entry fee in 2012 of more than $10 for the science center and $7 for the museum. On top of these ticket costs, an additional $8 would be charged for both the center's giant-screen theater and its digital planetarium.

A combined ticket featuring the science facility and one of these attractions would be $16, while to get into all three, a visitor would have to pay almost $23. Thus, to visit everything, including the ASM, the cost could run close to $30.

"The project needs to be (financially) self-sufficient," declares Robert Smith of the UA's Facilities Design and Construction Department. "The project will break even."

Through Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment money, Tucson taxpayers are footing the bill for the $130 million building, which will have 125,000 square feet of total space. The science center is expected to draw 340,000 visitors annually, while the ASM could attract 121,000.

Multipriced tickets similar to those recommended in Tucson are common at many museums. For example, the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, which has 40,000 square feet of space, charges adults $9 plus $8 for entry to its IMAX theater, and another $8 for the planetarium.

Nashville, Tenn.'s Adventure Science Center has 111,000 square feet and charges $11 for adult admission. The center then adds $6 for entry to the planetarium, and $5 for a ride in a flight simulator.

An exception to this multipriced ticket philosophy is the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif. Its 132,000-square-foot facility opened a decade ago and attracted less than 400,000 people a year until more free events, combined with a blockbuster show in 2007, shot the figure above 625,000.

According to spokeswoman Lisa Croel, the museum has shown a profit the last two years. The all-ages entry fee is $8, which includes one IMAX presentation, but not access to the occasional blockbuster exhibit.

Croel believes this simple approach to pricing has its advantages. "Up to a couple of years ago," she says, "we had multitickets, but then got away from that. It's helped with our attendance."

Whatever the final decision on ticket pricing is in Tucson, the university also has another financial dilemma ahead of it: Campus officials need to figure out how to cover a $60 million short-term construction-funding gap.

When the City Council recently divided up all the available Rio Nuevo money, they allocated the science center's final $60 million to be available in 2014. The last construction payment from the city, therefore, won't come until two years after the building is opened.

That same delay, according to Rio Nuevo director Greg Shelko, was taken with several other downtown projects.

"To fully fund everybody (immediately) would have precluded some projects," Shelko says. "So this was a way to almost fully fund everyone instead of having winners and losers."

For the science center and the ASM, Smith indicates this funding situation presents monetary challenges. "We'll have to have some gap financing," he states, "but we're not in a position of having to delay the project or throw in the towel."

Architectural plans for the science center/ASM are now being prepared, and a public meeting to review the design should be held by the end of October. Construction is then anticipated to start by next summer.

The appearance of the building certainly won't be anything like the controversial "rainbow bridge" concept considered a few years ago. Instead, Smith says, "The design will reflect its use and grow from the forms and materials that have come from the area."

That area along the riverbed of the Santa Cruz and near the base of "A" Mountain/Sentinel Peak has been occupied for 4,000 years. Smith believes it is "one of the finest locations in Southern Arizona," not only for the university facility, but also for what it will add to a visitor's experience.

"You'll be able to see centuries of history in one place," Smith says of the Science Center, the ASM, the Arizona Historical Society museum, the Tucson Origins project and other attractions to be built in close proximity to one another. "It will set Tucson apart from any other place, because no one else has (that history)."

The exhibits for both the science center and the ASM are now being developed, and Smith says they will allow for interaction with the visitor. "It will really be a multimedia approach for an interactive experience," he offers.

Smith adds that the exhibits will allow university community members a place to display what they are working on. "Whether it's the Phoenix Mars Lander or global warming, we don't have to start from scratch in developing things," he says.

While planning for the science center and ASM has been a time-consuming process, Smith is excited about the future.

"With all the Rio Nuevo museums planning to open in 2012," he observes, "it could be a magical year. I can't wait to get started."