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Big Science Project 

by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & eattle has a science center. You know, a place of adventure, excitement and discovery, chock full of edutainment and zany larger-than-life exhibits. Think Bill Nye the Science Guy transmogrified into museum form.





Back in 1999, partly to allow for the construction of a similar science center in Spokane, voters approved the purchase of land on the north bank of the Spokane River.





It's more than eight years later and still no science center. There are definite plans for a science center. There's an organization, Mobius Spokane, dedicated to bringing such a place about. There are exhibits -- like a giant model of a beating human heart -- being brainstormed and designed. And there's even money being raised -- more than $10.7 million so far.





But ever since Mobius' predecessor, the Inland Northwest Science and Technology Center, proposed the idea, the realization of the center has been a slow slog, rife with delays and reinventions. After a year went by and Mobius still didn't have the business plan that their lease required, organizers requested more time. Because of budgetary realities and changing usage needs, an earlier, larger version of the science center -- fashioned like a fish to match the Spokane Convention Center "ship" design -- had to be scrapped and scaled down by half. In May, Mobius missed a $14 million fundraising goal by about $3 million.





Still, representatives from Mobius don't characterize the slow pace as setbacks or failures. Quite the opposite, says Mobius founding chair Chris Majer. Mobius has moved carefully -- gingerly, even -- precisely because they want to avoid errors, Majer says. The specter of another public-private partnership like the River Park Square parking garage debacle still looms, Majer says. "We don't get any mistakes here."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he mistakes of last decade's previous science center attempt hang fresh in many Mobius members' minds. In 1995, a proposal to create a city-funded science center in the Riverfront Park Pavilion was spurned at the ballot box. According to city councilman Steve Corker, one of the main opponents, the center's heart was in the right place, but the location wasn't. Not only would the center have stripped the pavilion of its revenue-garnering rides; buses dropping off field trippers would have blocked the Howard Street Bridge, Corker says. Also, the Pavilion location would have severely cramped a science center's ability expand.





When the final vote tallies came in, the proposal was rejected by less than 100 votes. Majer says the failure "seriously annoyed" the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, which partnered with Spokane on the project, as well as the state legislature, which had donated $4 million.





Still, community surveys indicated that Spokane residents liked the idea of a science center. So a bond measure in 1999 passed, the parks department purchased the land on the north bank, and in 2002 the Inland Northwest Science and Technology Center (INSTC) floated their science center proposal. INSTC merged with the defunct Children's Museum in 2005 to form Mobius.





The Mobius Science Center faces a whole different slew of challenges than the first proposed science center. Instead of being tied to the whims of voters and city funds, Mobius' biggest hurdle is simply money. Before breaking ground, Mobius has to raise 80 percent of the $33 million cost. Raising that kind of cash takes time, says Mobius President-elect Neil Worrall. Big-time donors don't just shell out millions of dollars on whim. They want time to sleep on it. Worrall says more than $20 million in private gift requests are pending.





For proof of concept, Mobius created Mobius Kids in River Park Square, a sort of mini-Mobius Science Center geared for tykes. Mobius Kids, the thinking went, would show prospective donors tangible proof of what the science center could be.





"Mobius Kids outperformed anything we frankly dreamed," Majer says. "We have one of the most successful children's museums in the country."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith so much time spent researching dozens of other science centers, developing Mobius Kids and fine-tuning their strategy, campaign counsel Robyn Tucker says active fundraising didn't begin until about April 2007.





In the time since, however, Tucker says the support from the community -- from scientists, corporations, business leaders, doctors and state legislators -- has been considerable. Some businesses have given in-kind contributions, such as lumber and wire for the construction phase. Architect William McDonough, who specializes in environmentally sustainable buildings, offered to assist in the design process.





"We've raised more money faster than anybody who's ever had a capital campaign in the region," Majer says.





But with their May fundraising deadline not met, Mobius must negotiate the details of their lease with the Park Board to determine what the extension will look like. Mobius declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations, wanting to keep them confidential. The final decisions on almost everything -- from exhibits to size, cost and design of the project -- are on hold, pending the Park Board's decision.





Parks director Barry Russell says the board was a little disappointed with the missed benchmarks, but sympathizes with Mobius' efforts to raise the funds.





"With the economic environment the way it is right now, you've got to commend them for the fundraising efforts that they've done," Russell says.





Park Board President Gary Lawton says the board would really like to see a science center, but wants to make sure that it actually sees a science center. "But the Park Board owns the property and if it doesn't think [the science center] is going to happen, we'd like to be able to do something else with it," Lawton says.





Mobius is 100 percent sure of its plans and is confident in the pitch to the Park Board. Mobius, Majer says, will catalyze a wave of much-needed interest in the sciences.





"The time that you get kids inspired for careers in science is when they're young," Majer says, "[You need] to inspire that spark, that imagination, that curiosity about science and technology."





Mobius would be a "third-generation" science center, Tucker says. This would no longer be the domain of stuffy dioramas and "do-not-touch" signs. It would be malleable, interactive, experiential -- like the Experience Music Project in Seattle. "We feel this is this generation's Expo," Tucker says.





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