Challenger Center may face money crunch

Posted: Friday, April 04, 2003

KENAI (AP) The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai could run short of operating funds in just a few months as grant monies dry up, according to Kenai Mayor John Williams, a member of the center's board.

There is a pending cash-flow problem out on the horizon,'' Williams told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Tuesday.

The center's board has asked U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' office to include a continuing operation grant in the 2004-05 federal budget, but there is no guarantee the grant will be approved. Stevens has just one year left on his term as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senator Stevens has said time and time again with all of these programs that we need to look for ways to fund them and support them at home rather than from the federal government, and he's very candid about that,'' Williams said.

An idea under discussion by the center's board is creation of a boroughwide service area that could levy a property tax to help meet operational expenses, he said. A tenth-mill property tax would raise about $400,000 a year and cost the owner of a $150,000 home $15 a year, according to Jeff Sinz, borough finance director.

The center's fiscal year 2003 budget is around $700,000. Of that, $488,000 comes from grants that may not continue, Williams said.

The Challenger Center, one of 51 such facilities around the country, was promoted as a boon to education and the local economy. In all, $9.5 million has been spent on it so far, 82 percent from federal appropriations, Williams said.

Since April 2000, when it opened, 17,169 students have participated in center programs, flying'' nearly 500 simulated space missions.

Of the other centers around the country, Williams said, some are owned by school districts, some are owned and operated by private foundations, some are owned and operated by universities and major corporations.

Assembly member Chris Moss of Homer asked why the center is now facing a shortfall.

A lot of it lies with the condition of the economy,'' Williams said. Many of our major supporters are no longer funding and helping to support the center....

For example, we secured a $285,000 Indian education grant that is no longer available. We were given a million dollars through NASA to operate. The last of that grant is running out. Whether or not we will be able to obtain another one, I'm not sure.

British Petroleum gave us $250,000 to help run the center,'' he said. British Petroleum is no longer making those kinds of grants in the state.''

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