The State Museum announced today that it has the funds and plans in place for a $23 million expansion that includes a planetarium, space observatory, a 4-D theater and a world-class collection of telescopes on display. The priceless telescopes were recently donated by businessman Robert Ariail and will provide a historic dimension of the astronomy exhibits. Many of the instruments date back to before the Civil War, which actually interrupted Southern colleges’ growing interest and investment in astronomy.
We spoke with the executive director of the museum, William Calloway.
Ashley Byrd: How long has this been in the works?
Calloway: I think the first funding for this came in 1999 through a decision by the Legislature to appropriate some funds in to the capital reserve fund. Then I got here in 2002, and my background is in business. I was with Six Flags theme park for 25 years. I took a look at the feasibility study and I thought it was kind of shallow. So I immediately had the feasibility study redone to make sure we’re building something that made sense, that could sustain itself from a standpoint of generating enough revenue to offset any costs. So, we did that, and then we started raising money again. We went through the whole process basically starting over really and we started raising money again by the end of 06′. We have a foundation that basically is in charge with raising the private money.
We had some state money appropriated to us in 2006 and 2007, which was a total from the state of about $11.5 million dollars. So then we were challenged to come up with the rest of it, through other sources, so we had a $2 million grant from NASA, we got some city hospitality tax money–redirected. We used to get hospitality tax money for marketing but we redirected it to the project. And private companies, corporations, foundations, and individuals. So we finally had all the money raised in, I guess in about 2010, 2009, 2010 and then we had to go back in front of the Joint Bond Committee, make a case that we had the money, that we had done our homework, that everything was in line, and then they approved it, and then I believe it was in June of 2010, it was presented to the Budget and Control Board and approved through them to push forward.
Then the next step after that was we had to get financing for the pledges made to the campaign, all the private pledges. So we did that through JEDA, with the Jobs Economic Development Act, and they were able to float a bond basically that was supported by all the pledges to the campaign. And that was done in probably August 2010. So we’ve gone through a very long process, honestly.
Byrd: And your hopes financially for the future of this is what, that it’s sustainable, that it’s a one-time funding process?
Calloway: Yeah it’s going to be, when a new project opens, and like I said I’ve been doing this for a long time, you know you get a very high peak when you first open and then it plateaus out. So our plateau attendance is projected to be about 215,000 people; right now we do about 140,000. So that’s about a 75,000 person increase in attendance. But the first year we expect to do about, maybe at least 100,000 people more, so maybe more around 250,000 people, so to that end we’ve got some cushion built in there, so when we get to the plateau year, we’ll know for sure how to adjust accordingly, so that we don’t overspend relative to the new increase in revenues. So we do have some cushion relative to getting the funding going and really to see what the actual pro forma is.
You know with all the state budget cuts I find it imperative that we find other new revenue sources. So a lot of this project, while it’s certainly educational in its content, it also has a lot of revenue drivers in it. We’re redoing the store, we’re relocating the store, we’re expanding our rental facilities, we’re expanding our catering capabilities, with the content that we’re going to have in the planetarium and in the 4-D theater we’ll be able to be open at night, so we’ll have extended hours, which will generate more income. So there’s a lot of revenue possibilities with what we’re doing.
Ashley: That’s a point, that everything, anything is questioned in this budget environment. So you must answer that question of how you are building, how you are buffering yourself against that.
Calloway: Right, right. Yeah we’ll certainly have done our homework to make sure of that, and I think with my business background you know were certainly being very cautious in any kind of new expenses. We’re minimizing any new staff or any new expenses. And we actually have a contingency built into our pro forma of about 200,000 so we’re being very, very cautious as were going into this, understanding the landscape out there relative to the economy.
Ashley: At the same time your attendance is a relative measure because you’re going to be doing outreach to the classrooms?
Calloway: Very much so, we feel that we are a state museum, we are statewide, and not only will we be taking the museum on the road, physically, you know with people going out into the classrooms around the state, but also virtually. And we have other outreach programs as well like our travelling exhibit program, so we certainly feel that we’re a statewide institution.
Ashley: And you’re talking about a whole classroom…
Calloway: You know, you’re exactly right, as far as impacts go, that gosh who knows, because the capability of this is endless relative to how many people we reach because the fact that a lot of this content is going to be digitized, and once you digitize things it’s just a matter of putting it out there, that it’s available. So there will be people that we won’t even solicit that will be able to log in on to our site to look at archived material and content that this project will benefit. So putting numbers on that is going to be very tough to do, but we certainly feel that it’s going to have impact all across the state.
Ashley: The Airial collection is a donation, something that you don’t even have to pay for?
Calloway: Sure, the Bob Ariail collection is indeed priceless and working with the Thomas Cooper library, you know they’ve digitized all the images, so we actually already have a website up, through the gracious help of the Thomas Cooper staff, where we’ve digitized a lot of the instruments where people can now go on there and really blow up the instrument and see all the details of the instruments online. So while it’s obviously in my judgment a lot more impactful to see it on site, you can see the collection online as well.
Calloway: Yeah, we feel real strong about that. We’ve been in the process for the past six months of selecting a construction manager, and during the course of that vetting of a construction manager, and getting that person selected or that firm selected, we’ve had them look at the scheduling and the phasing, of how we’re going to do this, how we’re going to keep the museum open, how we’re going to make sure we don’t impact the operations on the (Confederate) Relic Room, and Department of Revenue and so forth. Even with all those complications, we feel like it could be done in 16 months, so we’re really looking to June of 2013, we’re really going to push that very, very hard. I did a project for the Kellogg company, up in Battle Creek, Michigan, and we kind of drew a line in the sand and said ‘We will open in May of 1998,’ and we did. So I’m used to kind of working under those deadlines and making sure people do what they need to do.
Ashley: Were there times in this recession, this super-recession, that you got nervous?
Calloway: Absolutely. The fundraising from the foundation was kind of floundering for a number of years, and until new leadership came on in 2006 was when we really stated making a difference, and then the recession hit, in 2008 basically. So it was tough, it was very, very tough. But I think the golden lining in that, I think it shows the value of the project, that we were able to raise the funds even in light of such a very depressed economy. We had individuals step up, companies step up, certainly local governments. But the fact that we had such a broad base of support for this project I think it really speaks well of what the project is, and what I think it will do.
Ashley: What else do want South Carolinians know about this project?
Calloway: I think that it belongs to the state. We are looking at this as a long-term project. The museum has been open for 25 years, and this is the first investment into the facility, really, in 25 years. So we had to be very judicious in the selection of the project and the content, so we really feel like we’ve done a good job as far as making sure the project will last for the next 25 years, and keep the museum viable and interesting and impactful for years to come.
Ashley: You had some high level corporate partners, doing fundraising, people who have great respect across the state?
We did, we did. We had a couple. Can’t get any better than Charlie Bolden, and Dr. Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize winner that were on our committee as honorary chairs, and then the people in the trenches. A lot of people who had great connections in the business world, personal connections. Again I think it speaks to how well the product was received out there and really understood that this would have an impact not only on families and school children, but the state as well relative to the economy and labor.
Ashley: Tourism being a major driver, in this economy.
Calloway: Absolutely. Tourism. And one of their big driving factors that South Carolina is looking at is cultural tourism. There’s a lot of retirees moving down to South Carolina. A little older, looking for things to do that stir the mind a little more, rather than just going to the beach, which is great in itself, but the per capita spending on cultural tourism is about 20 to 30 percent higher than regular tourists. So when we can bring in cultural tourists, we think of that as a much bigger driver to the economy. And South Carolina has great history, great heritage, great stories to tell, and we just want to be a part of that.
Ashley: Any concerns? Any challenges for the next year and a half while it’s being built?
Calloway: Nothing overriding. When you do renovations, especially in a nationally registered building, you have to be very careful, you don’t know what you’re going to find, so you’re always nervous about that. The good thing is we have a pretty sizeable contingency build into our budget. Again my conservative nature is we’ve got a million dollars sacked away, and it’s for the surprises. So that would be the biggest concern is what we’re going to find when we find when we start digging into the building and start building this thing.
Ashley: You might find some historic surprises…
Calloway: We might, we might. We might add to our collection! By the time this thing is done, absolutely.