City Beat

Big public subsidy coming for Sacramento riverfront museum

A planned science museum on the banks of the Sacramento River is poised to get a hefty financial assist from the city of Sacramento. And boosters of the project said it might be the last shot at getting the museum built.

The City Council voted Tuesday to support the Powerhouse Science Center’s application for a $30 million low-interest loan administered by the state. In doing so, the council also expressed support for picking up $15.9 million of the loan repayment, potentially using revenue from hotel room taxes to provide the largest subsidy the city has granted a cultural project since its contribution to Golden 1 Center. Millions more in city funds could go to the project over the next three decades.

“It’s the smartest thing, literally, that we’ve done in a long time,” said Councilman Steve Hansen. “It’s a no-brainer.”

The Powerhouse Science Center would replace the current museum on Auburn Boulevard formally known as the Discovery Museum. The first phase of the new museum would include a planetarium and 50,000 square feet of exhibit space. It would fill a former PG&E power plant on the banks of the Sacramento River, north of downtown.

Hansen said it’s “highly doubtful there’s another path for the science center” if the loan application – and the city’s commitment – fall through.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg voted to support Powerhouse’s application for $30 million in Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, federal dollars administered by the state Department of Education.

However, Steinberg is not convinced that hotel taxes should fund the city’s repayment and said the city must take more time exploring how it would cover its commitment.

An undetermined amount of hotel taxes could be available for tourist attractions after the city issues bonds to fund an expansion of the Sacramento Convention Center, and many projects will compete for that funding. City staff are analyzing how much money will be available.

“This center and this idea and this vision – which has been championed by many people for a long time – is the right thing for the city,” Steinberg said. “We’re going to find a way to get this done.”

If the Powerhouse receives the $30 million loan, the City Council will likely consider formal approval of its financing plan for the project later this year. The city owns the building and most of its contribution would go into the facility’s renovation.

A city staff report lays out a tentative plan for how the $51.8 million museum will be financed.

It includes $15.9 million from the city, likely in the form of hotel tax revenue, to help repay the loan. Powerhouse Science Center would be responsible for the other $14.1 million and contribute $11.9 million to the project from pledges and donations.

The city has already agreed to give the project $1.1 million and could be asked to provide up to $400,000 a year to help Powerhouse with operations and help repay the museum’s $14.1 million share of the loan payback.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis