$21 million for science museum seems like costly parting gift

One of the last acts of term-limited Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson was a vote allocating $21 million for a new space and science museum, depleting a big chunk of the city’s $25 million land fund for capital improvements.

While the city of Las Vegas is poised to postpone building a new city hall, it seems odd Henderson would gift $21 million to the board of the Henderson Space and Science Center, which is a vision, not a reality.

The allocation from the city’s land fund passed 3-2 over the objections of then Mayor-elect Andy Hafen and City Councilman Steve Kirk, who both had concerns about the city losing control over the money.

That was June 9.

But now Hafen is mayor and Kathleen Boutin is a new City Council member, and there’s been a shift in thinking.

Boutin is shocked that the city is depleting its $25 million capital improvement land fund at this time and for this reason, when Henderson has existing capital improvement needs going unmet.

Hafen believes the city has done this backwards. The museum board headed by Gibson and Councilman Jack Clark should collect private donations and then the city could match it.

His biggest concern: an unexpected capital need.

"Say we had a computer mainframe go out and needed an expensive capital expenditure," Hafen said. "Those funds would be pretty well depleted."

So he has asked the city clerk and city attorney to research the possibility of undoing what was done.

Another possibility would be for Councilwoman Gerri Schroder, who voted to transfer the money, to ask for a reconsideration of that agenda item. But she has rejected that idea.

"Actually, no, I’m not considering that. I felt the decision I made was the right decision."

She said the different departments that have projects on hold "have not said the projects are in dire need. … If they were so important, I’m sure they would have told me."

Boutin said the city’s needs right now should take priority over the museum. "Gerri must be aware of the problem. If she isn’t, she should be."

Boutin recognizes that speaking out so forcefully against the money transfer may be a black mark against her, "but I think it’s worth fighting for."

Schroder was asked by the Henderson firefighters union to request reconsideration. She told the firefighters she won’t at this time. She’s an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed museum. "This is a great opportunity to help with the education of our children, to show that science is more than dissecting frogs."

Hafen likes the museum idea, but not the timing.

Boutin said various capital needs she was briefed on during her first week on the job seemed a higher priority than funding the museum.

The projects put on hold include remodeling and an addition to the Convention Center, improvements at the Henderson Pavilion, remodeling the Moser Facility for building inspectors, two fire department warehouse projects and a Municipal Court classroom building.

The nonprofit museum is projected to cost $61 million, with annual operating expenses of $6.4 million. One consultant predicted there would be 300,000 visitors a year. Sure.

Hopefully, this is not the same consultant who predicted thousands of tourists would flock to the Springs Preserve. Museum officials I talk to in Southern Nevada pooh-pooh as unrealistic the high attendance estimates offered any time someone wants to build a new museum.

Gibson and Clark have been advocating for the museum for all their years in office. Clark, at his final meeting, called the museum "the single most important thing I have been involved in, in my 16 years on the City Council."

Under the June 9 agreement, if the nonprofit can’t find private donations to fund the construction in seven years, the money reverts to the city. And the interest during that time goes to the nonprofit.

No matter how worthy a project, wouldn’t a prudent official keep the money and the interest in Henderson’s coffers until it’s proven there is financial support?

Fortunately, it looks like some Henderson officials realize now is not the smartest time to gift $21 million to a museum.

The new mayor and new council member actually have the guts to speak out against the former mayor’s pet project when the safe route would have been to keep quiet.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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