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Science center plan falters

Wed., Nov. 18, 2009

City officials balk as Mobius backers pursue changes in contract

A plan to build a science center and children’s museum on the north bank of Riverfront Park appears to be in jeopardy.

Concerns have arisen over how to handle private development alongside the proposed complex, and the protracted negotiations have left some Spokane Park Board members feeling frustrated.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s done,” said City Councilman Bob Apple, the council’s liaison to the Park Board. “The thing is dead on arrival at this point.”

The Park Board voted over the summer to approve a contract for the science center with Mobius Spokane, the nonprofit group working on the project.

This month, however, Mobius officials asked the Park Board to approve a revised contract. That’s angered some on the Park Board, who say their earlier vote represented their final offer.

“We either take it as it is or forget it,” Park Board member Jim Quigley said Tuesday at a meeting of a park committee focused on the Mobius project.

Park Board member Larry Stanley added: “That was a non-negotiable document.”

But Mobius backers said Tuesday the new proposal is mostly about putting final touches on the earlier agreement. They said the new proposal was worked on with some Park Board members and a city attorney. “It’s our interest in this whole process that we get an agreement that both sides are comfortable with,” said Anne Marie Axworthy, a Mobius board member.

Mobius hopes to build a $29.5 million complex that includes a science center, a children’s museum and an IMAX theater. The lease approved by the Park Board in the summer requires Mobius to pay the city $12,500 a year in earned parking revenue and 15 percent of any money earned on commercial property that may be developed on other parts of the site. Those stipulations also are part of the proposed new agreement.

Neil Worrall, president of Mobius Spokane, said most of the proposed changes are in spirit with the contract agreed to over the summer. A larger change, he said, was made so that the project organizers can apply for federal tax credits similar to ones used on the redevelopment of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

“A close-the-door attitude to a nonprofit that’s trying to bring a science center and all its educational benefits to the people of Spokane is a little hard to work with,” Worrall said.

The 17-member Mobius board includes Anne Cowles, wife of The Spokesman-Review’s publisher, Stacey Cowles.

Mobius’ current and original plans for the site suggest it may commercially develop some of the land to earn money for the science center.

Park Board member Randy Cameron said he favors continued negotiations with Mobius but added that park leaders must ensure the final project fits the long-stated goal of the site.

“If it gets to be where it’s a development and it happens to have a science center in it, that’s not the spirit of what the Park Board was looking for or agreed to,” Cameron said.

Mobius’ idea to have commercial development on the property was one of the reasons it was selected by the Park Board for consideration in the first place, Worrall said. That’s because officials at the time recognized that science museums often struggle if they depend entirely on admission fees and donors, Worrall said.

“The commercial development of the land is a way of generating income to offset some of the operating cost,” Worrall said.

In 1999, Spokane voters approved a $15 million park bond. At the time of the vote, park leaders said they would use about $4 million of the money to buy land on the north bank of the Spokane River to expand Riverfront Park. They said their long-term goal for the property was to use the site for a science museum and to relocate attractions that are currently in the center of the park – an ice rink and the IMAX theater.

After the park department’s land purchase was complete, the board entered into a lease agreement in 2003 with the Inland Northwest Science and Technology Center, a group that later merged with the Children’s Museum of Spokane to become Mobius Spokane. The deal fell apart last year after Mobius missed fundraising deadlines it had agreed to with the city. Mobius raised less than $11 million of the $14 million it had pledged to raise by May 1, 2008.

Mobius board member John Becker said Mobius’ recent decision to hire an executive director is a sign of confidence in the project. The group has grant applications in to several foundations, and several businesses have expressed interest in donating to the project, he said.

“There will be some bumps in the road, you bet,” Becker said. “But we will prevail.”

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