Friday, September 30, 2011

Detroit Science Center closed temporarily (I hope)

From WXYZ.

Money problems have at least temporarily shut down the Detroit Science Center.

The Detroit Free Press asks Will the Detroit Science Center close for good?
The Detroit Science Center has such significant cash-flow problems and bank debt that the institution may close permanently, its interim president said today.

The museum closed Monday for at least two weeks because it couldn’t guarantee that it would be able to make its biweekly payroll of about $150,000 and other expenses. All 114 employees have been furloughed, and museum leaders told staff members that permanent layoffs were possible.

“In these kinds of situations, anything is possible,” said John Miller, former vice chairman of the board, who stepped into the chief executive role on a volunteer basis when former president and CEO Kevin Prihod resigned in August.
I've been blogging about libraries since the very first post here on Crazy Eddie's Motie News. But libraries aren't the only cultural institution I care about. Museums are just as important as libraries; it's just that there are more libraries; every city has at least one, while not every city has a museum.

In my case, I find this particular closing to be very distressing, as I sent my students there for extra credit field trips, so it affects my work. I'm not the only one.

With the Detroit Science Center on the fiscal ropes, teachers and civic leaders say they are worried the city could be robbed of a key educational resource and Midtown cultural anchor at a time when Detroit seems to be gaining momentum.

“It would be a travesty for the center to close,” said Grayling Mercer, an Oak Park High School physics teacher who takes students on annual field trips to the Science Center. “Education is so important, and closing this would take a lot away from the city and its offerings.

“It’s easy for students to read about science, but if you see it, science comes to life.”
I agree wholeheartedly.

The temporary closing also hits close to home because I've worked at three natural science museums between 1985 and 1998, four if one counts different branches of the same museum and six if one counts exhibit facilities in parks. I identify with the curators, docents, collection managers, gift store employees, and others working at this facility. As you can read, there are a lot of them (114). As a former museum employee, I know that these people love what they do, which is why they do it despite the generally low pay. Losing their jobs is the last thing they and the community need in these depressed times.

Is there any hope? Yes.
Led by Miller, a small group of board leaders and senior staff are working on creating a three-to-five year turnaround plan with Birmingham-based Amherst Partners, experts in corporate restructuring. The goal, said Miller, is to devise a plan built on a financially sustainable model for the Science Center that address its cash-flow issues and bank debt while still accomplishing its core mission — exciting and inspiring kids to careers in science and engineering.

“Then we can sit down with our partners — the bank, corporate supporters, individuals — and say, ‘This is what it’s going to take,’.” said Miller, director of the executive MBA program at Michigan State University and a former product development executive at Chrysler.
At least one corporate sponsor expressed confidence Tuesday in the initial steps that Miller and board chairman Francois Castaing, a former top engineering executive at Chrysler, were taking to find a solution to the museum’s problems.

“Ford has been a big supporter of the Science Center for many years, and we consider it to be a great asset,” said Jim Vella, president of the Ford Motor Company Fund. “We’re going to work with them, as I hope others will, to secure its future.

“But the first step is to see what the problems are and how to build a viable plan that’s sustainable over time.”
Despite the optimism, the problems are dire. In addition to being unable to make payroll, the museum has defaulted on a $5.8 million mortgage to Citizens Bank, which leaves it vulnerable to foreclosure or bankruptcy, owes $1 million to other creditors, ran a deficit of $1 million last year, and has maxed out its line of credit. It also has no cash reserves and less than $1 million in funds for restricted uses (the museum can't use them for general operating expenses).
“The best-case scenario is we put together a great plan, we get a lot of people behind us, and we remain sustainable,” Miller said. “The worst-case is that because of the overall depressed economy, we can’t get the support we need. Then, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions, and one of those could be an orderly shutdown of operations.”
The museum is scheduled to reopen October 12, but Miller said it was possible it would remain closed for a longer span while charting its future.
I hope it re-opens next month.

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