RALEIGH — The giant globe on Jones Street will have satellite images of the continents affixed to its surface starting this week a finishing touch for the Daily Planet, the signature feature of the $56 million Nature Research Center.
The new wing of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences is destined to be a big draw, with its multimedia globe theater, hands-on citizen science labs and collections of whale bones, emeralds and meteorites. It will open April 20 during a round-the-clock celebration expected to attract tens of thousands to downtown Raleigh.
The grand opening comes as lawmakers look to cut funding for some of the states cultural attractions. A legislative committee meets Wednesday to consider changes that could limit public access to some sites in order to save the state $2 million a year.
A report last month included a detailed cost-per-visitor analysis of museums, parks and historic sites; it recommended shuttering some sites seasonally or for a couple of days each week.
The analysis also suggests closing two sites and pursuing private contracts to operate the state zoo and aquariums. The study was ordered by Republican legislative leaders who last year faced a $2.5 billion shortfall.
Were having to really tighten our belt, said Rep. Julia Howard, a Mocksville Republican who chairs the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee. Were making concessions in education and health care and every other department across the state.
The science museum is not on the list for downsizing. In fact, the legislature approved 47 new employees for the new wing (though the museum lost five positions last year). Still, the Nature Research Center probably wouldnt be built if it were proposed in todays economic environment. A decade in the making, it was a triumph of timing, planning and persistence.
Some still seem shocked with the remarkable edifice rising across the street from the Legislative Building.
Ive had legislators in the last couple of years say, Im looking at that big globe over there and its hard to justify a lot of tax money going into that when people are suffering and people look at that and think its a waste of money, said Tom Earnhardt of Raleigh, a member and former leader of the Friends of the Museum board.
Earnhardt explains to them that about $34 million of the $56 million expansion came from outside state government. The state put in $22 million. The rest came from private fundraising, city and county tax revenue and federal grants.
Then they become a lot more enthusiastic about supporting the museum, Earnhardt said. In a very real way, its a public-private coalition.
Building on success
The museum is part of Green Square, an eco-friendly two-block development that includes an underground parking deck and an office building for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which oversees the museum. Two pedestrian sky bridges connect the Nature Research Center to the main science museum and the office building. Nearby is the high-rise building for the new State Employees Credit Union, which donated $4 million for the Daily Planet.
The Green Square development was approved by the legislature then led by Democrats almost unanimously in 2005 when the economy was humming.
Betsy Bennett, museum director, said the public-private cooperation won bipartisan support. Both sides of the aisle liked it from the get-go because of that, she said.
The science museum had already built a huge following. The $71 million building opened in 2000 and was an immediate hit. Since then, 7.7 million visitors have walked through the doors, including more than 712,000 last year. The recent state analysis showed that the museums cost per visitor is $11.84, less than the N.C. Museum of Art, the Battleship North Carolina and Tryon Palace.
A year after the museums opening, Bennett assembled key business and community leaders to think about the museums future. Their first meeting was scheduled for the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. Even with the chaos that followed that days terrorist attacks, the committee, led by former Raleigh mayor Smedes York, went ahead with the meeting.
Within a few years, the plan for the museum expansion came together. But it wasnt always smooth sailing.
Initially, the credit union was going to finance the project, leasing and ultimately giving the building to the state. But people in powerful positions werent sold on that idea.
It obviously tweaked some people the wrong way and didnt quite work out, Earnhardt said.
Attorney John McMillan of Raleigh, a longtime supporter of the museum, recalled many stops and starts.
Coming out of one meeting, someone told us, This thing is on life support, McMillan said.
Bennett regrouped. The private financing was dropped, and the circle of heavy-hitting museum backers kept working at it. Bennett had to get permission for the pedestrian skyways which typically are not allowed by the city of Raleigh. She took York, the former mayor, with her.
Its like climbing a mountain, McMillan said. There are a lot of false summits as you climb a mountain. You think youre there and you realize theres another hurdle, and youve got to pull up your socks, lower your head and stride on.
Eventually, Green Square came together. The state appropriated money to clear the land for the project. By the time building started, the recession was under way, and the project provided a much-needed boost to the construction industry.
The timing couldnt have been better.
When the first appropriation probably was made for that science museum, we were in high cotton, said Howard, the lawmaker. We had money rolling in, things were good and life was good.
Things havent been as good recently. But a month away from the opening, museum fans cant wait to get inside the Nature Research Center.
Its going to be phenomenal, McMillan said.