by Cara Gardner

It may be a while before Spokane has anything like the Butterfly Room at the Seattle Science Center, where thousands of the colorful, winged creatures flitter around an enclosed jungle, resting on the heads, arms and laps of visitors. But plans for Spokane's very own science center, SciTech, and its surrounding area, the Michael Anderson Plaza, have certainly taken off. So far, project planners say the science center -- slated to occupy ground on the north bank of the Spokane River across from Riverfront Park -- is garnering more consensus than conflict, a rarity for a city that's seen several major controversies during large expansion projects.

"We don't want to be na & iuml;ve, and we want to avoid the mess of the collapse of another public-private partnership," says Chris Majer, the board director for the Inland Northwest Science and Technology Center. Majer heads up development plans for the North Bank Master Plan, including the science center and the plaza, which is named after the Cheney-raised astronaut who died last year after his space shuttle, the Columbia, crashed after reentering the atmosphere. Majer says a variety of consultants have helped him successfully navigate the initial stages of SciTech.

"We had Avista helping us, and we wanted [the process] to be transparent," Majer explains. "Students from Gonzaga looked at financial modeling, and getting people involved from the community [has helped us] pretty much wrap up the financial aspect of the plan. A commercial developer will come back with opening report of the viability in June."

Majer explains that rather than venture into a public-private partnership with the City of Spokane, which, although it supports the science center, doesn't have the funds to subsidize it, the board will try to make deals with commercial business.

"In other cities, science centers are either subsidized or there's some endowments because they don't make any money; there are no illusions about that," Majer explains. "We don't know if we'll collect enough from endowments, but our strategy will reduce the need for endowments by producing enough commercial development."

Majer says plans aren't far enough along to know exactly what commercial businesses will be at SciTech, but he says it will probably include mixed-use development, such as senior housing and retail. The board is also seeking grant money from state and federal sources, where allocations are tight.

The interim business plan will be presented to the Park Board in June, Majer says. After analysis from that report is organized, the board will develop a finalized version that should be completed before the end of the year. Though it's slow moving, Majer says there haven't been any serious viability concerns, though they've had to downsize the building, eliminating new offices for the Parks Department, in order to meet financial goals.

"Sometimes it feels like making glaciers move," Majer acknowledges. "But there haven't been any show-stoppers yet. We've had nobody say, 'We don't want a science center.' We've had people question if it's a good idea to sublease public property for commercial development, but if we don't do that, we can't have a science center, and then what would we do with the property? It would then go on to be a bond issue or something."

Private donors have given the board about $400,000 in start-up money, and though more donations and endowments are expected, Majer says the board only plans on asking the community for input, not money.

"We're starting a series of meetings with different interest groups from business and education; we want to get the community to tell us what they want to see in the science center. It's the community's property and project, and they need to have a voice as to what goes in it."

Publication date: 05/27/04

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