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Sedgwick County to consider five-year funding agreement for Exploration Place

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, at 10:56 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, at 3:53 p.m.

Exploration Place would get more than $11.4 million through 2018 under a five-year funding agreement Sedgwick County commissioners will consider Wednesday.

The deal would give the science center on the Arkansas River some stability after years of budget cuts.

The agreement, similar to a five-year funding agreement the county reached recently with the Sedgwick County Zoo, would begin Jan. 1 and conclude at the end of 2018.

“I think that this is a similar issue and a similar management strategy that we’ve employed at the Sedgwick County Zoo,” Commissioner Dave Unruh said Monday. “Exploration Place needs that sort of planning stability. A five-year agreement with their board of directors is reasonable and the right thing to do.”

The county had cut funding to the zoo and Exploration Place over the years because of the down economy, and the zoo and science museum had been operating without long-term funding agreements. The 13-year-old science center has lost about $400,000 since 2009, its president, Jan Luth, said earlier this year.

The agreement calls for more than $2.2 million each year in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and just more than $2.3 million each year in 2017 and 2018.

Greg Sevier, chairman of Exploration Place’s board of directors, said the agreement will give the center stability heading into the future.

“It certainly provides us with a comfort as we do our long-range financial planning that we know we’ll have the county as a partner in the future,” Sevier said. “In those couple years that we didn’t have one or we didn’t know what the funding might be, it made the long-range planning certainly more difficult.”

Luth said earlier that county funding pays for about 50 percent of Exploration Place’s budget, and the rest of its budget comes from revenue from admissions, store sales, memberships, education programs and donations.

Exploration Place had closed its cafe and reduced staffing to cut expenses during the economic slump. It has no plans to reopen the cafe, Luth said.

The restored funding will be used for maintenance of its building. Similarly, the zoo is catching up on deferred maintenance with its funding bump from the county.

Uncertainty in funding, Sevier said, affected “our ability to commit to some of those capital improvements not knowing what our arrangement with the county was going to be.”

The county’s agreement with the zoo gives the zoo about $31.2 million during the next five years. It includes an average annual budget increase of about $387,000 – with the increase ranging from 5.4 to 7.8 percent.

It also defers about $945,000 in principal and interest on a loan the zoo took out with the county to build a restaurant, Plaza Beastro, in 2008. With the loan deferral, the zoo annually will get between 7.8 and 12.3 percent more through 2018.

Commissioners approved the zoo agreement on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Richard Ranzau voted against it. He said he supported the zoo and understood why its leaders were asking for a guarantee of support but said there was too much financial uncertainty to guarantee the zoo funding.

Commissioners will discuss the proposed Exploration Place agreement at their meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday in their chambers on the third floor of the courthouse, 525 N. Main. The meeting is open to the public.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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