Mobius center hurt by denial of tax credit, low attendance
A half dozen girls point with urgency at the body displayed on the screen, identifying several broken bones. They are examining the digital corpse at Mobius Spokane’s autopsy exhibit and have spent much of their field trip in this room.
“It catches my interest,” said Chanelle Bridges, 10, a Hamblen Elementary fifth-grader. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”
It’s the type of experience that the champions of the new downtown science museum dreamed about. But after only a year of operation, Mobius is struggling financially. The museum assumed it would win federal tax credits, but that didn’t happen. And its attendance projections were way off.
After spending $7 million to open its doors in August 2012, Mobius already is searching for a new home.
The museum expected 115,000 visitors in its first year. Actual attendance has been closer to 70,000, said Marty Gonzales, executive director of Mobius Spokane.
“If we can get you into the door, the experience speaks for itself,” Gonzales said.
It took museum proponents nearly two decades to open the science museum after voters in 1995 rejected a plan to open a satellite branch of Seattle’s Pacific Science Center in the heart of Riverfront Park.
Gonzales said when Mobius opened last year, museum leaders expected to win federal New Market Tax Credits that would have covered 90 percent of the cost to buy the space it leases. Mobius learned earlier this year it would not receive the credits.
“As a startup organization, we’ve had our hands full ironing out the kinks in the business,” Gonzales said.
The museum leases its downtown space in the 809 West Main Building from CPC Development Co., a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review. The building, across the street from River Park Square, is a former J.C. Penney store and was converted to condos and retail space in 2005.
Gonzales and Cowles officials declined to say how much the museum pays for its space. Gonzales said rent at 809 is not subsidized by Cowles Co. but that Cowles gives Mobius a reduced rate at Mobius’ separate children’s museum at River Park Square.
Mobius has the equivalent of 17 full-time jobs. Three positions have been cut, including CEO, in the last several months. Gonzales was promoted to executive director in November. He previously led the organization’s children’s museum.
Gonzales said he’s confident that the museum can maintain its staff in the long term if it can find a space that it could own.
Of the $7 million spent to open the museum last year, half was spent on exhibits that could be moved to a new location, Gonzales said. The rest was spent preparing the 27,000-square-foot space. But he said Mobius’ lease allows it to take many improvements with them to a new space.
“We have mechanisms in place that will fund our move,” he said, declining to provide details about those resources. He also declined to say how much money Mobius has in reserves. The nonprofit’s tax statement for 2012 is not yet publicly available because Mobius filed for an extension.
Gonzales describes Mobius donors as “surprised but supportive” of the idea of moving.
Tom Simpson, co-chairman of the Mobius board, referred questions to Gonzales. He said he “absolutely has faith” in Mobius’ leadership.
Mobius raised $12 million before opening the museum. Some of that was spent planning for a museum at Riverfront Park, Gonzales said. Voters in 1999 agreed to buy land on the north bank of the Spokane River to expand the park, in part for a science museum.
Several years of negotiations between Mobius and the Spokane Park Board, however, failed to produce a deal that would allow Mobius to build a museum there. Park officials feared that the museum would struggle and rely on the park department to subsidize it; museum officials noted that Mobius Kids, its children’s museum, had succeeded without government subsidies.
Gonzales said moving to a new site could happen within a year. More than half of Mobius’ 1,300 members belong to both the science and children’s museums, so the preference is for space not far from Mobius Kids.
Anne Cowles, the wife of Spokesman-Review Publisher Stacey Cowles, is a member of the Mobius board. She has recused herself from discussions about moving from the Cowles-owned property, Gonzales said.
Though attendance hasn’t met expectations, some who have discovered the new Mobius have high praise for what it offers.
Molly Hopkins, youth development professional for a Boys & Girls Club based in East Central Spokane, took 13 kids there last week.
“They’re all excited to be here,” she said. “It makes science accessible.”
Olivia Guzman, of Mexico, visited Mobius with two of her grandchildren who are moving to Spokane.
“Children don’t want to leave,” she said. “They want to be there all day.”
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