Foon Rhee

Is Sacramento science center special enough for a big taxpayer investment?

An architectural drawing shows the planned Powerhouse Science Center on the Sacramento River.
An architectural drawing shows the planned Powerhouse Science Center on the Sacramento River. Powerhouse Science Center, Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects

The boosters of the Powerhouse Science Center are sort of like the most earnest parents you know.

For a decade, they have been nurturing their pride and joy – a project to transform the 1912 PG&E power plant on the Sacramento riverfront into a state-of-the-art science education center. They’re aiming for construction to finally begin early next year so the 50,000-square-foot center can open in fall 2020.


They say their kid is incredibly smart (it will teach 150,000 students each year), a hard worker (it will diversify the local economy with an annual impact of $34 million) and really attractive (it will draw 150,000 visitors a year).

So it’s a very special child. But it’s also a rather expensive one: The center’s supporters want taxpayers to fork over nearly $20 million so it can reach its potential, and they go before the City Council on Tuesday.

Councilman Steve Hansen and other supporters badly want the council to go ahead and make a firm commitment of $600,000 a year in hotel taxes to help repay a $30 million bond.

But city officials are cautioning that it’s not clear yet how much hotel tax revenue will be available after the planned expansion of the Sacramento Convention Center.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg pushed for a less expensive convention center to free up cash for other projects that will attract visitors and increase hotel and other tax revenues. He told me that while Powerhouse is clearly an appropriate use of the Destination Sacramento fund, he’s not convinced yet it’s the best use of that much money.

To reach the $51.8 million total price tag, supporters are cobbling together private donations, state grants and local tax money. They are also asking for an additional $4 million in cash from the city to close the funding gap, but so far the city has pledged only $1.1 million of that request and wants supporters to raise the rest.

The $30 million bond is the big missing piece. The city would be on the hook for $15.9 million, to be repaid with the hotel tax money. Under the Powerhouse proposal, the city would also help pay off the other $14.1 million with $400,000 a year from another account.

Harry Laswell, Powerhouse’s executive director and CEO, says the project is on a tight timetable. If the council signs off on the hotel tax on Tuesday, that would persuade the Sacramento County Office of Education board to vote Oct. 3 to apply for Qualified Zone Academy Bonds. That federal tax credit program comes with an interest rate of less than 1 percent, which means $800,000 less a year in debt payments. Powerhouse backers want to be first in line for the bond because the financing doesn’t pencil out without it.

City Hall, however, is on a different schedule.

It is still months away from completing an analysis of how much in hotel taxes will be available. And the final price tag on the convention center expansion won’t be known until its environmental impact report is complete in March or April. Early estimates put the cost at between $90 million and $125 million. That means there could be $50 million to as much $80 million available for other projects, but it’s also not known what other ideas for visitor attractions might be out there.

Without all that information, it’s difficult for the council to decide how much to invest in the science center. So the staff report on Tuesday’s agenda calls for passing a resolution that supports the bond application, but that only commits the city to consider financial help after the bond is approved and if the city has the money available.

I can see how that approach makes sense to protect taxpayers. Yet I’m also sympathetic to Powerhouse supporters.

The center is shoehorned into a 10,000-square-foot building, and in 2015 they had to downsize from an $80 million plan that included building a signature, glass-encased planetarium next door. They and other civic boosters have dreamed of a cultural district along the riverfront stretching from Crocker Art Museum to Powerhouse.

On a project taking this much time, momentum and appearances matter. Private support could easily dry up even further if the city drags its feet too long.

So if council members don’t sign off on the hotel tax Tuesday, it’s crucial they make clear that a significant chunk of city money is on the way.

The Powerhouse boosters seem likely to leave City Hall disappointed, but they’ll still be hoping for the best for their child.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee