Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Science Station Lessons for Pella

The Gazette's lead headline tells the story, "Debt Dooms C.R. Science Station." But there are other lessons for those pushing Iowa attractions generally -- and the Pella rain forest in particular -- from the tale told in this morning's (October 18) story. Janet Rorholm, Debt Dooms C.R. Science Station; Center, IMAX Theater to Close Nov. 15 Unless 'Sizable' Bailout Spares Them," October 18, 2006, p. A1.

[Late afternoon edition/addition: As is often the case, when State29 takes on an issue like this it ends up being much more entertaining and insightful than what I've got. So don't miss State29, "IMAX Theater in Cedar Rapids Creates a Lot of IDEBT," October 18. 2006.]

1. First, thanks to those who've tried to make a go of this edu-tainment venue -- a list that includes a sizable number of dedicated Cedar Rapids' businesses and citizens. All recognize the potential contribution of a "science station" to a state, and country, that needs to increase its citizens' understanding of science -- not only as a significant part of anyone's general education in a high tech world, but also if we, and our children, are ever going to be able to participate in today's global economy.

Having said that, what lessons can we learn about attractions generally -- applicable to the Pella rain forest in particular?

2. Be realistic in projecting attendance, and the revenue it will provide. The rain forest's promoters seriously suggest it will attract 1.3 million or more visits. But most
of Iowa's edu-tainment venues have attendance in the 30,000-80,000 range. And the Science Station didn't pull that. Attendance for fiscal 2003 was 20,336.

3. Take into account that attendance drops over time. You can open anything new, from a resort to a restaurant, and expect a crowd the first months, or even year. (As they use to say in L.A. in the evenings, when powerful spotlights were scanning the sky to attract customers to an opening, "Somebody must have opened a can of beans.") Holding those attendance numbers in future years, let alone increasing them, is a monumental challenge. It will be true for the Pella rain forest if it is ever built. It was true for the Science Station. Its 2003 attendance wasn't the worst of it. Attendance declined every year thereafter, from 20,000 to 19,000 in 2004, to 17,000 in 2005 and 2006.

4. "Debt Dooms." The Gazette's headline got it right, "debt dooms" edu-tainment attractions. Of all the statements to come from the Pella rain forest promoters -- and that's quite a collection from which to pick -- perhaps the most troubling have been David Oman's mention from time to time over the disappointing past few months that the project could always be funded with debt if more support isn't forthcoming. Debt is one of the single most commonly shared qualities of attractions that start with the enthusiasm of cheerleaders and end with the padlocking of the front door.

Moreover, as the Science Station is discovering, once debt does become the challenge, it is extraordinarily difficult to get contributions from generous donors to "pay for a dead horse" -- that is, to pay off past-due debt and other bills. Folks would much rather give money for a new wing on the building, or a new exhibit.

5. Entertainment. So much for the "edu," what about the "tainment"? It's no secret that we're more attracted to entertainment (e.g., Hawkeye football games, rock concerts, Riverside gambling casino, Adventureland) than we are to educational venues (e.g., UI academic lectures, Iowa Hall, Old Capitol, President Hoover presidential library). The rain forest promoters have talked of an IMAX, or comparable, theater inside their structure. Bringing an entertainment feature inside an edu-tainment venue can be (but is not always) a good move.

The Science Station added an IMAX, and while the numbers it drew were not enough they were a substantial increase over the Science Station standing alone -- roughly 110,000 in Fiscal Year 2003. [The combined, Science Station plus IMAX, attendance for the four years was 130,897, 114,425, 87,943 and 85,574. Numbers for the IMAX alone require subtracting the Science Station attendance from these figures.] Note that, again, there was the predictable decline in attendance (of 42,000) after the first year, even for the "entertainment" IMAX: from 110,000 in year one, to 68,000 in year four.

Pella, I hope you're watching -- and learning -- from the Science Station.

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