WEST PALM BEACH —
Hypothesis: If you put $5 million into the South Florida Science Museum and rebrand it as a learning center and aquarium, its draw will expand beyond local school children.
The first test comes in early June, when the 50 percent space increase and such state-of-the-art exhibits as Science on a Sphere, a computer-generated 3D video storytelling center, reopen as the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium.
Friday night, the 50-year-old West Palm Beach institution unveiled the name change and a $900,000 grant from the Quantum Foundation that will bring in world-class traveling exhibits over three years. Think Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition and Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibit. The kinds of exhibits that increase foot traffic 10 percent to 15 percent for the year.
“Attractions are part of the reason that people do travel to destinations,” said Jorge Pesquera, CEO and president of the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
An upgraded science center that hosts significant exhibits bolsters the bureau’s message that Palm Beach County is a fun place for families to visit. Pesquera said museum CEO Lew Crampton made the vision happen.
When he arrived nearly three years ago, Crampton said, the museum had “low curb appeal and worn-out exhibits.” Now construction crowds out the exhibit space and threatens to take out the air-conditioning at times.
But that has failed to deter attendance, which rose 20 percent last year, even after Crampton raised ticket prices by 30 percent. The aging museum had still been a steady draw, with 125,000 visitors a year.
Children were skipping throughout the museum this week, tugging parents along by the hand, despite the walls blocking the space where the 6,000-square-foot traveling exhibit hall is forming up and the 4,000-square-foot Florida Exhibit Hall featuring 8,000 gallons of aquarium displays from saltwater to fresh.
As a science center, the (former) museum will continue its interactive focus to help educate school-age children in the science, technology, engineering and math fields that are in such high demand now among their future employers.
“We plan to become a science anchor for the area,” Crampton said. “It’s why Quantum has partnered with us.”
Meanwhile, the donors gathered Friday night at The Breakers.
Five astronauts were honored at the Out of This World fund-raiser: Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, Gemini VIII command module pilot David Scott, Apollo astronauts Edgar Mitchell and Charles Duke Jr. and shuttle commander Robert Crippen.
Ultimately, Crampton said the new science center will also be more appealing to adults and non-local visitors primarily due to the traveling exhibits. The museum already gets a steady infusion of tourism dollars from the Cultural Council to fund marketing.
“Without it we can’t really be on the map as a place with informal science education,” council President and CEO Rena Blades said.
The aquariums and international traveling shows will elevate the museum’s mission, she said. It will also generate more revenue by bringing in more visitors, both local and regional, further growing its potential.
“Everything we ever dreamed about around here, we can have,” Crampton said. It didn’t look that way 2 1/2 years ago.
Crampton arrived in late 2010 when the recession had hit the museum hard, dropping public support from $2.4 million in 2006 to $1.2 million in 2010, and even lower in 2009, according to the museum’s tax records. And the grand vision of rebuilding as the Dekelboum Science Center in Lake Lytal Park had crumbled just before the recession hit.
Despite the problems with the prior plan, $2.4 million remained of a city bond commitment for rebuilding and has been rolled into the current capital campaign. That means about half will be private money.
Now the capital campaign is just $400,000 away from the goal with three months to go. And the museum has two matching grants offered that total $350,000, which would push the fund-raising goal well over the top if matching funds are committed.