November 22, 2009 in Opinion

No derailing science center

Neil K. Worrall Special to The Spokesman-Review

A meeting of a Park Board subcommittee this week created an inaccurate perception of the Mobius Science Center project. Members of the board suggested Mobius is asking for sweeping changes to the pending lease the two parties have been working on for months. This is not the case. More importantly, this meeting led to a perception that the project may be faltering. Also untrue.

Regardless of whether a successful agreement can be reached with the Park Board, the plan to build a science center is alive and well. We may build it in a different location, but we remain 100 percent committed to creating this educational asset for the youth of our region.

The changes to the lease mentioned in the subcommittee meeting had been previously discussed and the vast majority of the lease is unchanged from that approved by the Park Board in August. The environmental cleanup language required revision because the August lease stated that the technical surveys of the site and its associated cleanup had been completed and that Mobius was satisfied with the findings. However, this work had not yet been completed by the city and there were no findings to review.

Language was added to state that these studies were in process and the city has recently initiated a more comprehensive environmental study of the potential contamination of its property. Mobius recently discovered a parking easement existed that had not been disclosed, necessitating a revision to our parking plan, business plan and the lease language. Mobius also requested revision of the language allowing the use of tax credits for funding, similar to The Fox and YMCA, and this was written in cooperation with the city attorney’s office. Several other minor “housekeeping” changes were also suggested.

The draft lease (available online at www.mobiusspokane. org/science) spells out the terms of the proposed relationship between the city and Mobius. It covers many topics, but a few important aspects include:

•The city leases the land for 50 years to Mobius for $12,500 a year. The city owns the land.

•Mobius raises all money to build and operate the science center. Mobius alone bears the liability for any operating losses. If Mobius fails, the building reverts to city ownership. The city could sell or re-lease the building.

•The lease allows Mobius to sublease property to other tenants, with city approval. Because nonprofit science centers don’t cover costs through admissions alone, this revenue would help support operating costs. Any subleasing will always be an ancillary part of the project, as science education and programming remains our central mission.

•The city will perform “initial remedial work” as it applies to existing hazardous substances, or pollution, for the property to qualify for DOE approval. This would need to be done for any use of the property.

But more important than any lease is the idea behind creating a world class science center. This is an idea that has been alive in our community for years because of what it would mean to our youths. A science center is a place where young people get exposed to new ideas, experiences and career possibilities.

The history of the idea of a science center on the north bank goes back a decade. In 1999, a Park Board-run planning and community input process revealed a science center was the public’s top choice for the use of the north bank property. Because the city had no funds to support the science center, it issued a request for proposal in 2002 to select an independent science center operator. Mobius was selected.

Mobius has been working to raise private and state funds to build the science center. Having a private nonprofit take the responsibility, and the liability, for operating a science center is viewed by many as a win-win. It would enable the city to fulfill the public’s vision for the use of the north bank.

Mobius Spokane is a nonprofit organization governed by a volunteer board of directors. We are a group of both current and retired business people, physicians, community volunteers and educators. Mobius Spokane operates Mobius Kids in River Park Square, which provides young children with fun, hands-on educational opportunities and averages over 65,000 visitors a year.

The proposed Mobius Science Center will build on this success, providing youths ages 8 and up with fun and educational experiences designed to engage them in learning. This past summer, MobiusLab at NorthTown provided visitors with a sneak peek of the science center. We received great feedback from some 10,000 visitors.

Many good questions have been raised this week as a result of media coverage. You can e-mail us through links at www.mobiusspokane. org/science with questions or comments. As we make decisions about whether to pursue collaboration with the city or build elsewhere, we welcome the community’s perspective.

Neil K. Worrall is president of Mobius Spokane.

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