HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The doors opened Friday at the sparkling nine-story, $165 million Connecticut Science Center, a dramatic addition to the riverfront and the latest project aiming to breathe to life into the capital city.
But the bold project faced financial troubles even before it opened, thrust into being during a rocky economic climate that science museums across the country are facing.
Payroll at the Connecticut Science Center has been slashed about 8 percent and as many as 10 jobs were eliminated, some before they were filled. The 144,000-square-foot center expected to get about 15 percent of its annual budget from the state, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s most recent proposed budget eliminates all state funding for the center as it copes with a deficit of as much as $8.7 billion.
“We had certainly hoped to open with a bank account that would help us in difficult times like these, and that account is not what we expected,” said Matt Fleury, the center’s CEO and president.
But officials are pleased that none of the center’s colorful interactive exhibits _ including a Mars flyover, a helmet crash test and Connecticut River insects _ were altered because of the cuts. Fleury said the center also anticipates gathering all the donations pledged during the center’s $165 million capital campaign.
Advocates say science centers are a powerful tool for fostering an interest in math and science. Globally, science centers attracted 81.2 million visitors in 2008, with 60.3 million of those visits taking place in the U.S., said the Association of Science-Technology Centers.
Joan Ferrini-Mundy, a division head at the National Science Foundation, said science centers and museums are a necessary component in creating a “science-savvy” public.
But the recession is having an impact on centers in Connecticut and elsewhere. The New York Hall of Science in Queens cut its $14 million budget about 15 percent, and the St. Louis Science Center imposed cutbacks on staffing and travel.
“We recognize that in order to have a future we need to make sure we’re being responsible today,” said Brad Nuccio, senior vice president of business for the St. Louis center.
Nuccio said the economy is forcing science museums to focus on collaboration and creativity, and as a result the St. Louis museum is creating a network of science centers that could give the group strength in numbers.
Connecticut’s center was conceived eight years ago by state civic and business leaders. It has two main goals: to nurture an interest in science and technology among the state’s youth, and to serve as the linchpin of Hartford’s urban revitalization efforts.
It’s a brass ring cities everywhere are aiming for. But it comes amid a particularly difficult stretch for Connecticut’s capital.
The National Hockey League’s Hartford Whalers left for North Carolina in 1997. Then a proposal to build a downtown Hartford stadium for the New England Patriots fell through.
City and state officials then sought to build a football stadium for the University of Connecticut’s football team, but the stadium went to East Hartford. Later talks to build basketball and hockey arenas also fizzled.
Connecticut’s leaders hope that the center’s location _ within a two-hour drive of an estimated 20 million people _ may help draw visitors looking for low-cost entertainment options this summer. Admission prices range from $13 to $16 per person.
“Science and technology are the engine that power our future,” said Rell, who was aided by two robots created by local students during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “And this marvelous science center puts the keys in that engine and in the hands of a new generation.”
Isaac Cardone, 8, put that message in motion soon after, wheeling vehicles down a ramp that’s part of an exhibit called Forces in Motion.
As did Suhayb Zarroug, 14, who said he’s been eager to visit the science center since the groundbreaking. “Science is my favorite subject because of the way it can explain things that would rather be unexplained, like how the universe was formed,” he said.
His favorite exhibit was a penny smashing machine that “shows you the aerodynamics of terminal velocity.” Fitting for an eighth-grader who already has big dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer.