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Challenger Learning Center struggles to find operating money

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2003

KENAI (AP) The Challenger Learning Center has been highly successful at finding grants to build its facilities dedicated to space education. But finding the money to keep the doors open is proving to more difficult.

The learning center opened three years ago and organizers won applause for leveraging federal grants and corporate donations into a facility at no cost to local taxpayers. The $7 million facility has just finished doubling in size, adding new multipurpose classroom space and dormitories for out-of-town students.

Finding money for keeping the doors open has been harder.

Fees paid by school groups making simulated space missions pay only one-quarter of the cost of running the facility. Operating funds from corporate sources and Congress have dried up. The nonprofit center is not sure how it's going to keep open next winter.

''What we have today is one of the premier Challenger Centers in America,'' said Kenai Mayor John Williams, a longtime center promoter. ''It is totally debt-free. All we have to figure out is how to run it.''

Earlier this month, a proposal to raise property taxes to run the Kenai facility appeared on the agenda of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. The increase would be small, and Kenai Peninsula schoolchildren are being offered free access to the facility. But the proposed bailout has not been universally well-received.

''They said they would not be coming to the borough for money and now they are. I'm concerned about that,'' said borough Mayor Dale Bagley.

Similar funding problems have dogged the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. Visitor revenues did not live up to predictions and pay operating costs after the center opened in 1998. Luckily for Seward, a boom in research for the North Pacific has brought money to support the public aquarium.

In Homer, the $18 million Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, is to open in late fall. Operating funds for the main tenant, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, appear secure. But a state biological research agency, scheduled to share the facility, has suffered big funding cuts under the new state budget.

North of Anchor Point, promoters of a federally funded volcano education center still hope to win congressional funding for a new facility. Commercial development on part of the borough land provided for the project could cover operating costs, they say.

''We've learned from the Challenger Center and the SeaLife Center,'' said promoter Emmitt Trimble. ''We really have to be confident this thing can support itself.''

There are 51 Challenger space-education centers in operation around the country, Williams said. The most successful are run by university campuses, school districts or major corporations such as Boeing, he said.

The Kenai idea started small, Williams said. The city was looking at uses for the basement of an unused former middle school.

''It became a whole new animal once the private nonprofit took control,'' he said.

Construction and operations so far have drawn $6.5 million in federal funds and $1.5 million from corporate and private donations.

An open house coincided with the Challenger Center's pitch for local funding from the assembly. The center is seeking one-tenth of a mill $15 a year for a $150,000 house to cover annual expenses of $400,000.

''We're hopeful that the people of the Kenai Peninsula will see the advantages to their children's education of having a facility like this,'' Williams said. About 7,000 middle-school-aged students from around the state visit the center each year.



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