Taxpayers Eyed for Major State Museum Expansion

June 11, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveFresh off securing $2.5 million from local government sources, the S.C. State Museum is now seeking an additional $19 million, most from state funding, to proceed with construction of a planetarium, observatory and theater.

The museum recently received approval from the state’s Joint Bond Review Committee to proceed with the plan, which would include constructing approximately 22,655 square feet of new facilities and renovating approximately 47,500 of existing space.

The proposal must be approved by the Budget and Control Board, scheduled to meet Tuesday.

In addition to the 55-foot digital dome planetarium, state-of-the-art observatory and 4-D theater, the expansion would also include an astronomy library, a teacher resource center and related facilities.

Sources for the expansion, valued at more than $20.5 million overall, would include the following:

  • $7 million from appropriated state funds;
  • $5.5 million from Jobs-Economic Development Authority bond financing;
  • $3 million from capital improvement bonds;
  • Nearly $2 million from the NASA Foundation; and
  • $500,000 from the state’s capital reserve fund.

The State Museum Foundation is listed as contributing a little more than $1.5 million.

In addition to the expansion costs, the project would add additional operating costs of $1,725,000 in the three years following the project’s completion, scheduled for December of 2012.

For the current fiscal year, the General Assembly appropriated nearly $5 million for the State Museum, including more than $3.4 million in general fund revenues.

Willie Calloway, executive director of the State Museum, did not return calls from The Nerve seeking information on the expansion request.

At least one member of the five-person Budget and Control Board, Gov. Mark Sanford, has indicated that given the state’s difficult financial position, projects such as that proposed by the State Museum likely don’t represent the best use of state resources.

“The governor has pretty consistently voted against these types of permanent-improvement projects over the past few Budget and Control Board meeting because of the budget situation,” Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said. “He’s not singling out particular projects, but he doesn’t think it’s wise to be going down that road, especially given the budget.”

Indeed, the state’s general fund budget has been cut by more than $2 billion over the past two years because of falling tax collections related to the economic downturn. Twice this year the Budget and Control Board has had to make across-the-board general fund cuts, totaling nearly $439 million.

In addition, it’s not entirely clear that the expansion, while perhaps well-intentioned, makes sense financially no matter what the state of South Carolina’s budget.

For one, Columbia used to have a planetarium – located on the University of South Carolina campus – but it closed more than a decade ago.

Also, Charleston’s IMAX Theater closed in 2007 after reporting poor financial results. While IMAX and 4D aren’t technically the same, both are considered high-end movie viewing.

Funded primarily through public support, the $29 million State Museum was opened in 1988 in the former Mount Vernon Mill near the Columbia Canal. It began laying out plans to add a planetarium, observatory and theater more than a decade ago.

Recently, Columbia City Council members approved a $1 million commitment in hospitality tax dollars over five years to the State Museum Foundation. Richland County Council also made a substantial pledge in hospitality tax revenue, as did the Lexington County Council.

Those moves raised some eyebrows as Columbia finished its past fiscal year with a $9 million deficit and saw the city cut its budget, lay off employees and end commercial garbage pickup for Dumpster-like containers. Richland and Lexington counties also cut their budgets.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at kevin@scpolicycouncil.com.