City Beat

This former power plant will soon house California’s newest science museum

Powerhouse Science Center prepares to launch to new site

Sacramento’s Powerhouse Science Center prepares to move from its humble suburban home to historic site on Sacramento River.
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Sacramento’s Powerhouse Science Center prepares to move from its humble suburban home to historic site on Sacramento River.

After years of trying to put together financing, Sacramento is finally planning to break ground on a new science museum along the banks of the Sacramento River.

The City Council unanimously approved Tuesday night a $30 million contribution to the Powerhouse Science Center over the next 30 years, a vote that supporters said would give the project the final boost it needs to launch construction in the late spring or early summer of 2018. The museum is scheduled to open in 2020.

The Powerhouse museum will replace the much smaller Discovery museum on Auburn Boulevard. Situated in a 105-year-old shuttered PG&E plant on the Sacramento River north of downtown, the new museum will have a 120-seat planetarium and 20,000 square feet of exhibit space dedicated to nature, water and space exploration. There will also be room for three to four traveling exhibits each year.

The city acted urgently to pass the funding. Nearly $20 million worth of construction bonds for the project are coming from the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds program, a federal program administered by the state Department of Education for education projects. Congress appears likely to eliminate the QZAB program at the end of the year under the federal tax overhaul package, meaning the Powerhouse facility may be among the last projects to receive the funding.

The city’s contribution will help pay off those bonds, as well as other construction debt.

“If we had not met this deadline, we would all be shaking our heads because this project would not be happening,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, whose district includes the Powerhouse site. “Literally, this financing vehicle allows us to do what we’ve dreamed of for over a decade on the riverfront and to bring science and math, engineering and technology education to our kids and our families and our region.”

The museum’s annual operating costs will be covered by admissions, membership fees and donations. Museum officials estimate the facility will have 300,000 visitors a year.

Construction of the museum is projected to cost $48.3 million. Sponsorship and donor pledges will help with the financing. Harry Laswell, the executive director of the Powerhouse Science Center, said he expects the bond financing to close by the end of the year and to release new architectural drawings in February.

“We’re very excited to finally get things moving,” he said.

City officials and museum boosters have been working on the project for years, but have been unable to gather enough money to start construction. “Nobody’s given up on this project,” said Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the museum will help anchor a revitalized riverfront – a priority for the mayor as he explores future tourist-related projects to be funded by hotel room taxes. The city’s contribution to the project includes $600,000 a year in hotel taxes. The other $400,000 will come from the city’s Innovation and Growth Fund, made up primarily of tax dollars that were once allocated to local redevelopment agencies.

“There are some things that are good and so important for the future of our city that we must find a way,” the mayor said. “And we found a way.”

Shahnaz Van Deventer, director of marketing and development at Powerhouse Science Center, made her case for support at Social Venture Partners' Fast Pitch event on March 8 at Golden 1 Center and won a number of cash and in-kind gifts.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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