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C.R., Linn say Science Station asks too much

Non-profit must erase $1.3 million in debt

Janet Rorholm

The Gazette

October 23, 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 — The Cedar Rapids City Council and Linn County Board of Supervisors don’t plan to lead the charge to save the Science Station and McLeod/ Busse IMAX Dome Theatre by writing a large check.

  ‘‘I hope the community doesn’t think the county has deep pockets, because we don’t,’’ supervisors Chairman James Houser said.

  Science Station officials approached council members and supervisors this summer with a request for funding to help bail them out of their financial troubles.

  Science Station officials issued a formal plea Wednesday to the community for funding to erase $1.3 million in debt. Without the bailout, they plan to close the facilities Nov. 15.

  The 20-year-old non-profit is a hands-on science and technology center at 427 First St. SE geared to children and families.

  This summer, Science Station officials asked county supervisors for a $500,000 onetime gift to pay off debt.

  They also asked the Cedar Rapids City Council for a $500,000 gift plus $150,000 in ongoing, annual operating support. The Science Station receives about $20,000 in hotel-motel tax each year from the city. It will receive $25,000 this fiscal year. The city rents a former fire station, one of three buildings that make up the facility, to the Science Station for $1.

  Some people believe government should help bail out the Science Station because it helped The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center, 615 First Ave. SE. The city and county contributed $200,000 each toward the $1.4 million the History Center needed to ward off foreclosure and retire the museum’s mortgage. Houser said the county’s finances are much different today than they were in 2003, when it gave the History Center $200,000.

  ‘‘We could put it on the agenda for a discussion, but that’s no guarantee to bail them out to the tune they were requesting,’’ he said.

  Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser said requests for city funds, especially of this magnitude, are typically addressed within the budget process.

  ‘‘We don’t have $500,000 lying around. Things are pretty tightly budgeted,’’ he said.

  Prosser also said philanthropy is not typically the role of cities.

  ‘‘We simply aren’t in a position to be a banker of last resort,’’ Prosser said.

  Council member Chuck Swore believes the issue will come up for discussion by the council. The focus may be on what role government should take in a bailout and in ongoing support of the Science Station and other cultural attractions.

  ‘‘I just don’t want it overlooked that this is a community problem and not one of city government,’’ Swore said. ‘‘That is an asset to the community and we don’t dare lose the Science Station, but I say that as a member of the community, not as a council member.’’

  Science Station Executive Director Joe Hastings said no one had offered a large check as of Friday, but he remained optimistic.

  ‘‘We’ve had nothing in the six-figure threshold . . . but we have had great grass-roots support,’’ he said.

  One of the first donors in response to the Science Station’s plea was 7- year- old Jackson Kane of Marion. When Jackson learned the Science Station might be closing, he emptied out his piggy bank and made his mother, Barb, take him to the Science Station on Friday morning, since there was no school, so that he could donate $4.01 in coins he received from the Tooth Fairy and doing chores.

  ‘‘I was saving it up to rent games from Family Video when my mom told me that Science Station would have to close if it does not get enough money or pledges. I said, ‘I should instead help the Science Station stay in business,’ ’’ Jackson said.

  The Kane family has a family pass and frequently visits the Science Station.