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Headwaters Science Center asks $13 million in state bonding

Headwaters Science Center Executive Director Laddie Elwell gives a presentation for a new 13 million science center to the members of the Minnesota House Capital Investment committee members early Thursday morning at the HSC. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Members of the House Capital Investment Committee seem receptive to the Headwaters Science Center's pitch for state bonding for a new facility, but lawmakers pushed the need for a regional project.

"Obviously we wouldn't normally fund a local science center," Capital Investment Chairwoman Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said Thursday morning. "But your map sugges6ts that you understand that this is going to have to be a regional center ... How will this become a regional center as opposed to a science center on Bemidji's main street?"

The panel, on a tour this week of northern Minnesota potential 2010 bonding projects, stopped early Thursday morning at the Science Center to hear about its $13 million state bonding request toward its $26.1 million proposed new science center.

"It is a regional center," said Laddie Elwell, center director and founder. On a handout, a map showed about two dozen cities from Chisholm to East Grand Forks that have had school groups visit the Science Center, saw outreach programs to the schools or non-school visits and outreach.

"We get people not only from Ohio and all over the United States, but also places in the world," Elwell said.

The Headwaters Science Center, now in a renovated JC Penney building in downtown Bemidji, seeks to build a new 52,000 square-foot center along the Mississippi River at the south end of the downtown.

A lawmaker noted that the Bemidji Regional Event Center was originally slated for that area, but in a controversial decision was moved to the southeast shore of Lake Bemidji.

The two issues are separate, said Mayor Richard Lehmann, adding that the Bemidji City Council endorsed the proposed HSC site long before siting the BREC.

"This will be one of the key factors for downtown redevelopment," Lehmann said of the Science Center. "Having a new modern building will draw people downtown."

More than a dozen staff, volunteers and board members gave their endorsement to lawmakers for the funding, saying the current site is in need of repairs and has grown too small to house exhibits, displays and class space.

Elwell said with a number of students at one time, perhaps 150 students could be sent all over the crowded building.

When Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, asked Elwell about a private fund drive to make up the $13 million to match state funds, Elwell said a capital campaign has yet to be launched.

"We're not quite ready yet," Elwell said.

"One of the most appealing things I've heard today is the hands-on, intimate contact you have will all of your kids who come," said Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. "I see why you need a new building, but how will you maintain the incredible connection that you have?"

"It will be a big transition," Elwell admitted, adding that HSC's first goal is to meet the needs of the customer who enters the door -- and with the use of a lot of volunteers.

Elwell said Science Center operational funds typically come a third from memberships and walk-in fees, a third from donations and a third from grants. The city would own the new building, but the Science Center board would operate and maintain it.

With the recession, donations and grants are down, she said, adding that the budget can vary year-to-year from $200,000 to $350,000.

The Science Center -- the only one between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities -- is seen as an important provider of hands-on science experiences for young and old alike, speakers said. It also fits a STEM -- Science-Technology-Engineering-Math -- curriculum.

A fact sheet said that the Headwaters Science Center had 21,186 paid attendance in 2008, with outreach to schools and other sites working with another 4,292 people.

The new building will be "green," Elwell said, a demonstration of energy efficiencies for northern latitudes.

Before leaving, panel members spent time on the main exhibit floor sampling the various scientific hands-on exhibits.