Although the Challenger Learn-ing Center of Alaska's financial ground is somewhat shaky of late, the grounds surrounding the building have noticeably improved.
A landscaping project that includes building a sign and water fountain on the rear of the building facing the Kenai Spur Highway is nearing completion, thanks to the support of the community.
"All of this is compliments of some benevolent donors," said Kenai Mayor John Williams, a member and past president of the center's board of directors.
Williams said the majority of the materials, time and work needed to complete the project were donated or provided at a low cost by local businesses and individuals.
"A lot of people are involved in the project," he said. "The people that did have to charge (for their services) are shaving it down as tight as possible."
The center's board is hoping it can find such generous support for its operational costs as it did for its landscaping and remodeling project. It was built mainly with federal funds, which are no longer forthcoming. As the center's federal money disappears, it is left with an operating deficit of about $200,000 a year.
Williams estimated the center takes about $400,000 a year to run and makes about $200,000 in revenue. The difference has to be made up somewhere in order for the center to continue operating. The board had hoped it would be made up by the residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and lobbied to get a measure on the Oct. 7 ballot asking residents whether they wanted a property tax increase to fund the center. The borough assembly voted not to put the measure on the ballot, however, so the center is still searching for funds.
Williams said the center has received some small grants lately and has a public relations firm in Anchorage that is undertaking a major fund-raising campaign on the center's behalf.
Even without a steady source of funding, the center will continue operating, as evidenced by its new look outside.
"The Challenger Center is already a tremendous asset to the community and will continue to grow," Williams said.
The landscaping project consists of a circular patio and several planter rings that represent planets, continuing a decorative theme throughout the rest of the center. Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto can be found in the new landscaped area.
A cement water fountain also has been built as a memorial to the Challenger mission. At first the design for the project called for a sun dial, but it was decided that calibrating it would be too difficult. The next idea was an eternal flame, but that, too, was decided against.
"There again flames are kind of odd creatures," Williams said. "Sometime they work, sometimes they don't. And with kids around, we decided not to involve ourselves in that issue."
Next to the fountain is the center's new sign, a 10-foot-high pedestal and globe on top. Williams said the sign is more of a monument than just a sign and is a huge improvement over the small wooden sandwich board arrangement that has served as the center's only sign until this point.
Originally the center lobbied the Alaska Department of Transporta-tion and Public Facilities to get permission to put a sign closer to the road in the highway's right of way and the city of Kenai to get permission to build such a large structure for the sign. It had success with the city but struck out with DOT.
The project has been two years in the making with the DOT hang-up and with arranging for all the custom work necessary to build the fountain and sign.
Williams said he had hoped the work would be completed by the time NASA's Starship 2040, a touring space transportation exhibit, comes to town Sept. 9 through 12. It doesn't look like all the finish work will be done by then, but the project should be completed within the month.
"We're pretty well out of the woods now," he said. "All the digging and trenching is finished up. Everything's going according to plan. We haven't had any hitches yet the only hitch is the highway department."
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