Sacramento’s Powerhouse Science Center should aim for the stars

By Rob Turner

Sactown Magazine

December 09, 2016 06:14 AM

An artist’s rendering of the proposed planetarium at the future site of the Powerhouse Science Center. Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects
An artist’s rendering of the proposed planetarium at the future site of the Powerhouse Science Center. Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects

Sacramento, we have a problem.

For a decade, the team behind the Powerhouse Science Center has been fundraising for a new, out-of-this-world facility on the Sacramento riverfront. Its goal has long been to raise $81 million to fill the historic PG&E power station building with dazzling exhibits and to build a dramatic glass-encased planetarium next door where thousands of schoolchildren, locals and tourists could channel their inner Buzz Aldrin – or Buzz Lightyear – for a few hours or so.

But while we were busy digging ourselves out of the recession, the fundraising effort for Powerhouse – formerly called the Discovery Museum Space and Science Center with a modest home on Auburn Boulevard – slowed to a crawl, and last year, the goal was reluctantly trimmed to $41 million. The new plan involves building the center in phases over what could be decades.

In the process, the single most visible symbol of the project – the 60-foot-tall structure adjacent to the PG&E building containing a 150-seat, state-of-the-art planetarium – vanished as if swallowed by a black hole. Now, new plans are being fashioned for a much smaller dome inside the historic building that might seat 90 (the center’s existing planetarium seats about 40 adults).

This bold architectural statement on science, education and the power of urban design has been unceremoniously reduced to a wish list item for the future.

Unless we make it happen now.

In the midst of an expanding economy, now is not the time for thinking – or building – small.

The good news is that the game is changing. Our new mayor, Darrell Steinberg, says his priorities include, among other things, reinvigorating the waterfront, investing in education, attracting tech companies and thinking bold.

When it comes to the riverfront, no other opportunity is more shovel-ready than this one, with a goal to break ground by May, and a likely opening of the first phase in 2019. If our new mayor wants to make an immediate impact, this is his chance, with the help of local government and private and corporate philanthropy.

That’s where companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne come in. Yes, Aerojet has already committed $1.5 million for the new science center, second only to SMUD’s $2.25 million. But since that gift was committed, the company has signed contracts with NASA and Boeing worth a combined $1.4 billion. The Powerhouse Science Center is asking for $10 million for naming rights for the whole project. That’s the number Aerojet needs to hit.

Speaking of Raley Field, Sacramento and Yolo counties guaranteed a $40 million bond sale for that project in 1999. Surely, Sacramento County can contribute more than the $6.88 million it’s currently committing to Powerhouse.

The city of Sacramento, led by Steinberg, should also be coming in stronger than the $7.85 million it has committed. Now is the time to show that we value education as much as sports.

Local philanthropists need to play their part too.

In March, a retired high school teacher donated $5 million to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., specifically to enhance the center’s 400-seat planetarium. “If we hope to fill the tremendous need for more top quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals,” she said, “we have to start inspiring children and imbuing in them a lifelong love for these subjects.”

We are, quite simply, at a tipping point. We can pool our resources and aim for the moon, or we can keep sending our kids to other cities to dream big.

To paraphrase another astronaut who knows a bit about aiming for the moon, investing in this planetarium today would be one giant leap for Sacramento.

Let’s take it.

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. Contact Turner at rob@sactownmag.com.