City Beat

Ryan Lillis: Next up, a science museum. Maybe

This architectural drawing shows the planned Powerhouse Science Center on the Sacramento River north of downtown.
This architectural drawing shows the planned Powerhouse Science Center on the Sacramento River north of downtown. Powerhouse Science Center

Buck Busfield, co-founder of B Street Theatre, remembers the moment the idea first popped into his mind. He was eating breakfast at Café Bernardo at 28th and Capitol in midtown when he noticed a plot of land next door.

“What a perfect place for B Street Theatre to realize its long-held dream of bringing a state-of-the-art, gorgeous facility for kids to see theater,” he recalls thinking.

It was 1998. The youngest kids watching plays at B Street that year are probably out of college.

All these years later, B Street finally has the money it needs to start building the theater Busfield envisioned. The city’s most beloved performing-arts group went hat in hand to the City Council last week and, after a somewhat tense hearing, walked away with $3 million that gets them to their construction budget.

With B Street probably, maybe, on its way, the focus shifts to a long list of other projects – both big and small – scraping for money in a town where corporate funders are lacking and residents have a spotty track record of supporting arts and culture groups. From a major renovation of downtown’s Community Center Theater to the grass-roots effort to rehab the historic amphitheater in Land Park, campaigns to improve the city’s cultural landscape are limping along.

The next big project that perhaps could get its turn is the Powerhouse Science Center.

With a price tag of around $80 million, the planned science, space and environmental museum at the historic PG&E power station on the banks of the Sacramento River is an even more ambitious project than B Street.

Harry Laswell is the executive director of Powerhouse. He took over in June, inheriting a project that has promoted multiple groundbreaking dates, none of which were realized. When the organization landed a $7 million state grant in 2011, they said they’d break ground that year. Then the groundbreaking was pushed to 2014. And now it’s 2016, maybe.

Laswell said they’ve raised “a bit over $34 million” in pledges, corporate partnerships and government grants. If they can raise another $5 million or so, they’ll sell construction bonds early next year to finance the first phase of building. That involves restoring the old PG&E powerhouse and installing a full dome planetarium, exhibit space and a simulated space mission called the Challenger Learning Center.

They started nearly a decade ago exploring sites to replace the Discovery Center on Auburn Boulevard. Promoters envision the new facility as an anchor of a “museum row” that extends along the river from the Crocker Art Museum to new railroad museums in the railyard.

The Crocker’s $100 million expansion in 2010 was an example of what the city is capable of. So is the $6 million-plus Studios for the Performing Arts, a rehearsal and performance space in midtown. Both were huge lifts. Powerhouse has waited its turn.

“This community as a whole, for whatever reason, struggles to make these things happen,” Laswell said. “And if you try to do too much at once, all the projects are going to stall because there aren’t enough resources to go around.”

Now the economy is improving and Powerhouse is talking with corporations about naming-rights partnerships. Laswell – like many people in his position in Sacramento – is trying to arrange a meeting with Sacramento Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive about a donation.

“We have a number of prospects,” Laswell said.

That might be the best we can hope for right now in the city of Maybe One Day.

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