Carnegie Science Center expansion plan stumbles out of the gate
February 17, 2014 11:56 PM
A view from Mount Washington of the Carnegie Science Center.
By Marylynne Pitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Carnegie Science Center is hoping to raise $55 million to renovate and expand its building so it can attract major exhibitions and make science and technology education more lively, especially for youngsters.
However, a fundraising analysis prepared in November by the firm of Pursuant Ketchum called the plan "extremely ambitious and unachievable" and suggested scaling back and spreading improvements to the 23-year-old complex on the North Shore over a longer period.
Ann M. Metzger and Ronald J. Baillie, the science center's Henry Buhl Jr. co-directors since 2009, said they had seen the report and acknowledged that the project's fundraising and construction would take longer than they had anticipated. They said they now believe the project will require three years of fundraising followed by two years of construction.
Mr. Baillie said the center lost the ability to stage traveling exhibitions such as "Bodies" and "Titanic" after the old SportsWorks building was razed in 2009 to make room for the Allegheny Station of the North Shore Connector. In 2008, those popular shows drew 750,000 visitors, a substantial increase over the annual average of 515,000 visitors.
"We lost our temporary exhibition space of 30,000 square feet," he said.
Blockbuster shows such as "Da Vinci," "Cleopatra," "Tut" and "Harry Potter," Ms. Metzger said, "are all going to Washington, D.C., but not here."
The confidential report, obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was based on interviews with 55 key community leaders, including science center board members, representatives of local foundations and corporations, and other prominent people.
The museum's directors want to build a new science pavilion, renovate the existing building, update exhibits and theaters and increase the museum's presence with a new entrance and cafe linked to an existing riverfront trail. The science center recently applied for authorization from the state budget office for funding through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.
The co-directors said they realize the building's expansion, under a design by Indovina Associates Architects in Shadyside, must be done in stages. The project's purpose is to encourage more students to study science, technology, engineering and math because demand in the workplace for those graduates is high.
A preliminary architectural drawing shows the building expanding eastward toward Heinz Field with four stories covered in glass panels. This new, 60,000-square-foot science pavilion would house blockbuster exhibitions, an outdoor terrace where people could eat and view fireworks displays at the Point, additional classrooms and offices and sufficient conference space to attract daylong gatherings of scientists.
The fundraising analysis was prepared by Beverly Brooks Thompson, Pursuant Ketchum vice president; executive counsel Elliott S. Oshry; and Gary M. Cole, executive vice president for consulting.
The report outlines 10 challenges the proposal faces. A major one is the fact that Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh currently has an interim president.
David Hillenbrand, a retired Bayer executive, led the Carnegie museums from 2005 to 2011 and returned as interim president in 2013 after John Wetenhall's 17-month tenure ended. A quest for Mr. Hillenbrand's successor began last year and is being led by Sally M. Sterling from the search firm of Spencer Stuart.
"Until a CEO is in place, funders lack confidence that this initiative is -- and will continue to be -- an institutional priority," the report said.
The museums' board of trustees also "must demonstrate their enthusiasm for the project by their participation in the campaign before others can be expected to respond," the report said.
Among top 10 prospects -- described in the report as corporations, individuals and foundations likely to give $1.5 million or more -- potential funding broke down this way: $5.25 million from foundations; $1.9 million from individuals; and $425,000 from corporations, for a total of $7.6 million. That would require raising an additional $47.4 million.
Frederick Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation and a member of the science center's board, is undeterred by the fundraising report.
"I think the Carnegie Science Center is one of, if not the largest tourist attraction facility in Western Pennsylvania. I think it's a critical organization both because of their mission and because of their physical location. It's a signature spot, and they are a signature organization. Expansion or keeping that facility vibrant and fresh is important to the organization and it's important to the community," he said.
Of the 55 likely benefactors interviewed by Pursuant Ketchum, eight serve on the Carnegie Science Center board. None of the wealthy individuals interviewed by Pursuant Ketchum was willing to pledge $1.5 million or more, suggesting instead that foundations and corporations would supply major funding. But leaders of foundations told the report's authors that their contributions will not be that sizable. The report does not name specific foundations.
Interviewees repeatedly named a half-dozen people as likely candidates to serve in high-level leadership roles to raise money for the science center. Five of these potential leaders were interviewed, but none of them wanted to take on the task.
Most key players interviewed support the programming initiatives but are reluctant to back major improvements to the building or capital projects. Several people said deferred maintenance and upgrades should have been included in the science center's mission and that this is the organization's responsibility. Many said the science center should move ahead with its plans but do so in stages.
State Sen. Jay Costa, a Democrat who represents the 43rd District, said obtaining a Redevelopment Assistance Capital grant is a very competitive process. The science center will compete for funding with other Western Pennsylvania projects, such as redeveloping the 28-acre site occupied by the former Civic Arena, the former Saks Fifth Avenue and the Oliver Building plus building a parking garage on the South Side.
Bonnie VanKirk, a science center board member, acknowledged that "raising money is very difficult right now.
"Public money is not as it used to be. Foundations are very particular about what they donate to. I do think it can be achieved. Under the leadership of Ann and Ron, it will be achieved."
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.
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