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  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph

    Eric Schench, left, and Charlie O'Connor peruse the offerings in the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center's Science Store, Thursday afternoon in Concord.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph

    Eric Schench, left, and Charlie O'Connor peruse the offerings in the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center's Science Store, Thursday afternoon in Concord.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph

    Charlie O'Connor eyes model of the International Space Station in the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center's Science Store, Thursday afternoon in Concord.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph

    John and Linda Callum sit with their grandchildren under the menagerie of stars projected on the ceiling of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Planetarium, Thursday afternoon during the presentation of "Tonight's Sky". State funding cuts to the Discovery Center will force the center to go to being open four days a week rather than it's current seven.
Friday, September 9, 2011

State-funded McAuliffe-Shepard center may join ranks of private museums

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in a series of stories examining the consequences of state budget cuts on area people and programs.

CONCORD – Space may be the final frontier, but New Hampshire’s most visible home for space fans is facing a more down-to-earth challenge: the loss of more than one-third of its income as the state cuts off direct support.

Thanks to state budget cuts, over the next 18 months or so, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center will change from being a state agency heavily supported by taxpayer funds to a museum, probably a private nonprofit, that survives on admissions, fees, store sales, grants and donations.

“These are interesting times,” said Executive Director Jeanne Gerulskis wryly.

The change will align the Discovery Center with similar museums around New England, which are all private, nonprofit institutions that receive little or no state money.

The Discovery Center was created as the state-funded McAuliffe Planetarium partly as an emotional response to Concord teacher Christa McAuliffe’s death in the 1986 Challenger explosion and has retained its unique status until this year, when the Legislature and Gov. Lynch decided to cut the ties.

It won’t be easy to cope with the loss of roughly $763,000 in annual state funding, which makes up 35 percent of this year’s $2.17 million budget.

It already has led the Discovery Center to trim its museum and planetarium hours. After Labor Day, it will be open just four days a week, from Thursday through Sunday, except during school vacations and holidays, when it will return to its seven-day-a-week schedule.

This will cut costs and make the facilities available for more rentals to company meetings, class reunions and the like. The center did 47 private rentals last year.

The center also is looking to changes in programming, such as switching out traveling exhibits more frequently to increase return visits, and is continuing a push to expand beyond its traditional children-and-family audience with fare such as Friday night lectures.

It has hired a consulting agency to help develop proposals and by Dec. 15 will present a report to the governor and legislature about how it will move forward.

The center is likely to become a private nonprofit. It could remain a state agency with no funding, but Gerulskis said that seems unlikely, partly because as part of state government, the center has to jump through some unusual hoops.

“I spend an awful lot of my time working with state processes: advocating for the budget, going to governor and council meetings to get contracts of $2,500 and over approved,” Gerulskis said. “Last week, I had to drive to Somersworth and back just for two contracts. I would like to spend more of my time writing federal grants, foundations grants, or working with donors in the private sector.”

The Discovery Center’s situation isn’t helped by the unlucky timing of its 2009 expansion, which saw it grow from a planterium into a full-fledged science museum named after McAuliffe and Derry native Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

The million-dollar expansion quadrupled the size of the 11,000-square-foot facility and gave it a 129-space parking lot; previously, people had to park amid student cars at the adjoining New Hampshire Technical Institute.

But the expansion opened just as the recession clobbered donations and people’s inclination to spend on entertainment. Enrollment fell short of projections, programs were cut and much of the space sat empty.

This year, the center is making $379,578 in payments on the debt for the expansion, about a fifth of the total budget.

It’s not clear what the operating budget will be next year, but state assistance will fall three-quarters to $227,000 and is likely to be zero after that.

“We’re committed to keeping the Discovery Center vibrant and inspiring for the present and well into the future, so we’re working to develop a sustainable future that meets our mission,” said Gerulskis.

Although other museums throughout New England aren’t facing the loss of state funding, the recession’s effect on donors and the tightening of federal grants have made their lives harder.

“These recent years have been a challenge but not a crisis,” said David Goudy, executive director of the Montshire Museum of Science in Vermont, which was created in a Hanover bowling alley in 1976 and sits directly across the river from the home of Dartmouth College. It has about the same budget as the Discovery Center but claims 21⁄2 times as many visitors.

“We have tucked in a bit, trimmed some places, but we have invested more in our core as a place to come and learn, as opposed to outreach,” Goudy said.

Of extra concern, he added, is the possibility of changes to the tax code in face of the federal budget deficit that might make donations less desirable.

In Worcester, Mass., the Ecotarium, a science museum that has a planetarium and some wild animals (its much-loved polar bear recently died of old age) that has a much larger budget than the Discovery Center, and gets about twice as many visitors, is continuing with upgrades to facilities.

It is renovating its top floor in preparation for a new exhibit about the weather in the White Mountains, called “The Arctic Next Door,” slated to open in September.

“Times are tough, and institutions need to be proactive in strengthening their appeal,” said Julieane Frost, marketing and communications manager for the Ecotarium.

Over in Bangor, Maine, the Maine Discovery Museum, which gets about the same number of visitors as the Discovery Center although its budget is one-third the size, has seen some financial tightening even though attendance and memberships are doing well, said Executive Director Niles Parker.

“As far as fundraising goes, that has certainly been more of a challenge. 2008-09 was pretty scary; nobody had comfort where things were going. Last year, we began to see that rebound a little bit more in terms of philanthropic giving, more confidence in terms of donors,” he said. “Some of that uncertainty is creeping back in.”

Financial concerns are prodding science museums, even the giant Boston Museum of Science, to try to shake off the image that they are a place just for kids so they get more money from attendance.

“We started as traditional children’s museum, but in the last three to four years, we’re been trying to introduce science curriculum, increased technology, bringing some of those things into what we offer,” said Parker of the Maine Discovery Museum.

“That’s particularly an issue when you look at demographics in New Hampshire and Vermont,” said Goudy of Montshire Museum. Northern New England has the lowest birth rates of any region in the country.

“We’re really good at working with families with kids, but it’s pretty clear that over the long haul we’ve got to be responding to changing demographics,” he said. “We’re working to attract a wider field and broader demographics.”

Montshire puts on adult courses associated with Dartmouth College across the river and uses its 100 acres of woodlands to host certification courses with the New England Wildflower Society and Cornell University’s ornithology program. They also host microbrewery beer-tasting events with lectures about science given by professors.

On the other hand, the Ecotarium is doubling down on the younger audience.

“That family audience, families with children, is really our core niche and will remain so,” said Julieane Frost, marketing and communications manager for the Ecotarium.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or