Got Stars?

The future of the UA's Flandrau Science Center remains uncertain

If you didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Hector Vector, the Flandrau Planetarium's 33-year-old star projector, then you blew it—because nobody stepped up to save the UA Science Center, which officially closed June 1.

The staff members who continue to work at the UA Science Center—with reduced hours and salaries—are afraid they'll be joining Hector on the figurative unemployment line when their contracts expire at the end of the year.

According to Alexis Faust, the Science Center's executive director, future employment depends on Arizona state legislators, the final budget they approve—and whatever they decide about the Rio Nuevo redevelopment district.

"We just don't know yet. ... We're obviously hopeful," Faust says.

To some extent, it's business as usual for Faust and her staff. After UA administrators put concrete plans for a new downtown Science Center on hold last spring—blaming the bad economy—Faust and her staff continued to think up exhibits for the new center and put together ongoing community programs.

This summer, Faust says, employees brought astronomy programs to day-care centers and summer camps—outreach that they hope to continue in the fall with a portable planetarium they can bring to schools. In the past, thousands of students from Tucson school districts came through the planetarium as part of the schools' science curricula. However, Faust says nothing is booked, since most schools are still closed for summer break.

Faust says employees are also writing grants for programming and exhibit prototyping.

"We want more grants to help us support the programming we want to do. ... And we want to focus on ways to bridge this period of time until we know what's going to happen next," Faust says.

UA President Robert Shelton confirmed via e-mail that Science Center staff contracts end in December. He couldn't say whether or not they will be rehired to continue supporting existing programs or pick up where the UA left off on the new Science Center.

"They have contracts through the end of this calendar year, and we remain hopeful that we can extend these through the end of (fiscal year) 2010," Shelton wrote via e-mail. "These dedicated folks are primarily focused on further exhibit development for the Rio Nuevo project. These sophisticated exhibits and the associated software take time to develop, and we want to be ready when we learn of the city's plans for projects on the west side of the freeway."

Closing Flandrau and halting development on the proposed new center did garner public complaints, but Shelton wrote that most people seem to understand the UA's difficult situation.

"This is a time of great frustration for many folks," he wrote. "In the correspondence that has come to my office, I sense that people understand the difficulties of the state and thus the university in providing the necessary support for Flandrau and similar activities."

While Hector is retired, the Science Center's public observatory remains open, thanks to a group of volunteers who open it for stargazing a few nights a week. The rest of the exhibit space in the Flandrau is blocked off, but the doors of the UA Mineral Museum are open to the public two days a week, thanks to $1 million that remains from a 2008 gift given by the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation.

Shelton says there are no plans to move the Mineral Museum collection to any other part of the building, although most of it is housed in the building's basement.

"(I)t will remain 'Flandrau' as we get settled into the FY2010 budget once the state completes its actions," Shelton wrote.

While Shelton says state lawmakers hold the key to the Science Center's future, Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero isn't so sure that looking to Phoenix is the best way to examine the future of Rio Nuevo. The key, she says, is in the partnerships that existed before the economic collapse.

Romero's Ward 1 would be the home of cultural projects identified as part of Proposition 400, the 1999 Rio Nuevo initiative that outlined specific projects approved by voters.

"It was voted by Tucsonans. The biggest parts are an effort to bring attention to the history Tucson has. We're the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. We have to remember that part of the attraction in Prop 400 was not just the (proposed Tucson Convention Center) hotel, but many projects that will make downtown a special place to visit."

Romero says she has asked City Manager Mike Letcher to focus on developing a vision for the heritage and cultural components of Rio Nuevo. However, many in the state Legislature want the tax-increment financing (TIF) funds from Rio Nuevo to focus on revenue-producing projects.

"I don't think everyone thinks the hotel is the only revenue-producing project in Rio Nuevo; cultural and environmental tourism is just as competitive," Romero says.

Romero says she also wants city staff to put together a one-to-two-year plan, as well as a two-to-five-year plan "showing the vision of how are we going to get there as a community, with or without those TIF dollars," she says.

While no one has surfaced publicly to champion or condemn Flandrau's closing, David H. Levy, who co-discovered the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that collided with Jupiter in 1994, says he's certain the Science Center will be back on the planning table once the economy recovers.

Levy recently wrote about Flandrau's closing in a blog he does for Sky and Telescope magazine's online edition. Levy described the planetarium as a victim of the recession.

"In these hard financial times, making a convincing argument to maintain Flandrau Planetarium while also establishing a new Science Center for the public in the city's downtown development project called Rio Nuevo just wasn't in the cards," Levy wrote.

Levy also said he was quite sad to see the facility close; after all, it's where he and his wife got married on March 23, 1997.

"I have to stand behind (Shelton) on this decision," Levy told the Tucson Weekly. "It's a sad loss, but I have to believe it's temporary."