In an election too close to call late Tuesday, Spokane voters narrowly favored roller coasters and Ferris wheels over robotic dinosaurs and earthquake simulators.
The proposal to move a science center into Spokane’s Riverfront Park Pavilion was 196 votes behind out of 25,614 cast.
Final absentee ballots - which won’t all be tallied until next week - most likely will decide the issue. In addition, the final tally will almost certainly be close enough to trigger an automatic recount.
“It’s just too close to call,” said Greg Tripp, co-chairman of the “Yes! Spokane Pacific Science Center” campaign.
Steve Corker, who ran the campaign to keep the science center out of the Pavilion, shared Tripp’s hesitation to call the vote.
Considering that center supporters outspent his campaign $120,000 to $650, he said, “I’m surprised. I didn’t think we had a chance.”
City Council members approved a 20-year lease with the Seattle-based Pacific Science Center last March. A month later, a successful petition drive pushed the issue onto the ballot.
The science center referendum highlighted a primary ballot that attracted a meager 24.7 percent turnout among registered voters countywide.
The proposal to revamp the heart of Riverfront Park - site of the 1974 World’s Fair - sparked passionate debate among residents, especially since the proposal called for moving the carnival rides out of the Pavilion.
For months, supporters touted the center’s benefits - offering hands-on science to children and adults.
“I’m enthusiastic for the project and will be disappointed for the community’s children if this doesn’t occur,” Tripp said.
Critics said too many unknowns daunted the project. The fate of the rides remains uncertain. Questions loom about how much work might need to be done at taxpayer expense to prepare the Pavilion for the center’s arrival.
Joanne Tripp, who co-chaired the “Yes” campaign with her husband, said critics spread misinformation about the cost, causing voters to misunderstand the project proposal.
“A lot of uncertainties were created in voters’ minds,” she said. “They didn’t understand that this was not a tax increase.”
The city signed a $1.6 million, five-year services contract requiring the city and Park Board to pay the center $400,000 annually for two years. The payments would drop during the next three years and could stop when the contract expired.
Park Board officials maintain the science center proposal actually will cost taxpayers less than the rides. The Pavilion and the rides are in disrepair, they said.
Voters leaving polling places Tuesday afternoon offered mixed reviews of the science center proposal.
“The city is in a shortfall for money. We don’t have police and fire staffing,” said a 27-year-old city employee voting at North Hill Christian Church who voted against the center’s proposal.
“I voted for it because I really like the science center in Seattle,” said a 42-year-old mother of four as she left her polling place at Roosevelt Elementary.
Some, like a 42-year-old man also voting at the church, misunderstood the plan. He voted against it, saying “No additional tax.”
The proposal to bring the center to the Pavilion doesn’t involve a bond issue or new taxes.
If the center is approved, Pavilion renovation is expected to use up about $6.3 million of the center’s estimated $10.3 million cost. Exhibits should cost about $3.3 million and start-up about $634,000.
So far, about $2.2 million in private money has been raised. Federal taxpayers have committed $1.25 million to the center, state taxpayers $2 million.
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