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Debt dooms C.R. Science Station
Center, IMAX theater to close Nov. 15 unless ‘sizable’ bailout spares them

Janet Rorholm

The Gazette
October 18, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

  CEDAR RAPIDS — Struggling under a $1.3 million debt, the Science Station and its McLeod/ Busse IMAX Dome Theatre are set to close Nov. 15 without a communitywide bailout of the 20-year-old non-profit organization.
  ‘‘The bottom line is our debt over the last five years has accumulated and we’re at a point that if we don’t get help, sizable help, immediately, we’re going to have to close the doors,’’ said Dan Thies, who recently took over as Science Station board president.
  Officials plan to announce the decision at 10 a.m. today at the Science Station, 427 First St. SE.
  They also plan to offer a final appeal to governmental entities, corporations, community organizations and the public for money to pay off its IMAX theater mortgage, become current on its rent payments and pay outstanding bills to vendors.
  The Science Station is a hands-on science and technology center geared toward families.
  ‘‘This is no bluff,’’ Thies said.
  The appeal comes months after The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center, 615 First Ave. SE, temporarily closed after accumulating $170,000 in debt. It, too, had faced foreclosure in 2003, but was saved through an effort by the city and county government, local donors and banks who donated $1.4 million to retire the museum’s mortgage.
  The Science Station has run at an operational loss the last two years. It lost $350,000 in fiscal 2004-05 and is closing the books Sept. 30 on fiscal 2005-06 with a $150,000 loss, said Joe Hastings, Science Station executive director. The losses stem largely from decreased admissions and donations. Its operational budget is about $1.1 million.
  Hastings said he and board members have been trying to garner community support for months and raise money to retire the debt with no success. The city of Cedar Rapids, the Linn County Board of Supervisors and about 100 community leaders, including private individuals and corporations, have been approached, Hastings said. ‘‘So far, everyone we’ve talked to says how valuable they think the Science Station is and how much we need the Science Station in Cedar Rapids,’’ he said.
  But that verbal support has not translated into money.
  The Science Station has asked the giving arm of Rockwell Collins for a $250,000 gift over three years to help pay off its debt. Cindy Dietz, assistant secretary for the Rockwell Collins Charitable Corp., said the group wanted more information before making such a sizable contribution.
  ‘‘At this point the board expresses support for the Science Station and wants to be more supportive financially. It just wants to see more details,’’ said Dietz, who also sits on the Science Station’s board.
  Rockwell Collins already gives annually toward the Science Station’s operational expenses.
  The Science Station asked the city earlier this year for a one-time donation of $250,000 and an increase in the amount it receives annually from the hotel/motel tax. The Science Station will receive $25,000 from the tax this year. Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloran said the city wasn’t in a position to come up with ‘‘cold, hard cash.’’ She also said the Science Station wasn’t the only non-profit or organization asking for a bigger slice of the hotel/motel tax.
  ‘‘Everybody seems to think that money can work miracles. I just don’t know how to stretch it,’’ she said.
  Frustrated by the lack of financial support, Hastings said he is resigning effective Oct. 31. He joined the Science Station nearly a year ago.
  Thies said the board has not determined who will replace Hastings. But it doesn’t know whether it will need one.
  ‘‘Right now, it doesn’t look good at keeping the door open, and when you add to it the loss of leadership, that’s a double blow,’’ Thies said.
  The Science Station’s $1.3 million debt began accumulating with construction of the IMAX theater, which opened in 2001.
  Officials had hoped to raise more than $6 million to build the theater, but came up $775,000 short in fundraising and failed pledges. The Science Station took out a bank loan to cover the costs, which it has not been able to repay. It has been on the verge of foreclosure all year.
  Adding to the debt are late rental payments on the Science Station building. The Science Station rents the building, owned by Paxton Properties LLC & 419 LLC in California, for $75,000 a year. It would like to buy the building, but doesn’t have the funds and has not been able to agree on a price with the owners.
  The $1.3 million the Science Station must raise does not include purchase of that building.
  The Science Station has been further hurt by a theft case. Former office manager Nancy Listman is accused of stealing more than $313,000 from the non-profit between May 2002 and July 2004.
  Listman’s trial has been delayed by the courts until later this year.
  ‘‘That had a direct impact and an indirect impact that has been twice as large,’’ Hastings said. ‘‘We’ve lost the trust of the community and we have been trying to rebuild it over the last year.’’ Hastings said new financial controls have been put in place in hopes of preventing that from happening again.
  Thies stressed that new blood on the board of directors has shifted the Science Station’s focus toward running it as a business. The board has been working on a strategic plan that would create an operational reserve to tide it over during the seasonal fluctuations it experiences. Thies said Hastings has reenergized the Science Station by bringing in traveling exhibits and grants. He said Hastings also has helped renew partnerships with key educational organizations.
  H a s t i n g s said he hoped his resignation doesn’t hurt the Science Station further.
  ‘‘I’d hate if my leaving becomes another excuse for people not to give,’’ he said.
  ‘‘I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, what we’ve accomplished, but in the end it’s not getting the job done,’’ Hastings said.
  ‘‘Operationally, we’re doing some fantastic things, and I think (the Science Station) can be viable once we clean up the mess.’’
  Thies said there is nothing significant about the Nov. 15 deadline, which comes right before the holidays, the Science Station’s most profitable time of the year.
  ‘‘At some point you have to pick a date. If we don’t define a timeline, we drift aimlessly in the bay,’’ Thies said.