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Discovery Space Request Sees No Unanimity from State College Council

on May 17, 2011 9:37 AM

State College Borough Council split Monday night over several long-term capital proposals, including a request that the borough help fund the Discovery Space children's museum.

"I think we're really not elected to make voluntary contributions for our citizens without their permission. That's what this amounts to, right?" said council member Jim Rosenberger, referring to the Discovery Space of Central Pa. funding request.

The 4,000-square-foot, nonprofit museum, taking shape on the 100 block of West Foster Avenue, is due to open this year. To help sustain its "growth and development," museum organizers have asked the borough to commit $50,000 annually to the operation for each of the next three years.

Average annual expenses at the museum are projected at $215,000 to $250,000, director Art Heim has said.

"We cannot do this alone," volunteer museum leader Marty Starling told Borough Council last month. She spoke of getting the community engaged "in every way possible."

"We want to be responsive to this community in helping children to learn about their own community first," Starling said.

But several council members suggested Monday that museum organizers should make their fundraising push more of a regional effort -- and approach other municipal governments in the Centre Region, as well. (Heim said last month that the museum group had not ruled out asking the nearby townships for help.)

"I do feel it should be a wider project than just for the borough," State College council member Silvi Lawrence said in the council's Monday work session. She has reservations, she said, about "reaching into the pockets of borough residents and asking them -- or not asking them, in this case -- to make a contribution."

Council President Ron Filippelli noted that the borough "already made a major contribution to this project by buying the Verizon building."

Back in 2007, the council voted to have the borough buy the former Verizon building at 224 S. Allen St. The $750,000 purchase was meant to create a home for the Discovery Space museum. But by 2010, museum organizers had concluded that venue -- at roughly 8,400 square feet -- was too expensive for their means.

They soon relocated their plans to the first floor at 112 W. Foster Ave., a leased space where the public will get an initial look at the museum during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in July.

The borough is still sorting out what to do with the 224 S. Allen St. property, making the space available for rent in the interim.

As for the latest Discovery Space support request, Filippelli said he agrees with both skeptics and supporters. He mentioned that the Borough Council, in prior years, has committed borough funds to Schlow Centre Region Library and to the State Theatre, as well.

"In some ways, these are economic-development contributions," Filippelli said. "As a council, that certainly is a legitimate thing for us to be thinking about. In these cases, the idea is that they will bring people downtown; they will bring people into the borough and generate economic activity. And that's a good thing."

While he's "not necessarily opposed" to the borough's giving money to the Discovery Space, he said, he thinks museum organizers need to ask other local-government entities for support, too.

Council member Theresa Lafer also aired some hesitation, saying she does not think the borough can afford the requested level of Discovery Space support "year after year."

But her colleague Peter Morris said "it seems like a modest amount of money, actually."

"I don't think we ought to be stingy about this," Morris said. He said the museum could become one of the most important destinations for borough visitors.

"This is the center for the Centre Region we're sitting in," Morris said, referring to the borough. "It plays the role of the downtown. ... There are some obligations that we can't just shake off."

The proposed funding for Discovery Space -- $150,000 over the next three years -- is included in a tentative proposed Capital Improvement Plan. Borough Council  will vote on that multi-year financial blueprint June 6.

But that vote will not be the final word on projects included in the plan. In order for each planned capital priority to receive funding, the council also will need to include it in the borough operating budget. The council makes final operating-budget decisions each December.

Among the other priorities tentatively included in the proposed capital plan:

  • Acquisition of a couple lots at the former O.W. Houts site along West College Avenue. That land is owned by Penn State now, and there's no definite indication that the university is willing to sell any portion of it, according to borough leaders. But State College has long eyed that acreage as a potential site for borough-encouraged affordable housing. There was no unanimity among council members Monday about that idea, though.
  • Creation of a new borough effort to encourage banks to lend to small businesses. The consensus of the council appeared to push that idea back to 2014 or 2015 for later consideration.
  • Creation of a new program to aid the purchase and conversion of rented houses back to owner-occupied homes. Council didn't engage in a lot of discourse on this item Monday.

Also Monday, the council agreed to hold a public hearing June 6 on a conditional-use development request along South Atherton Street. There, a developer would like to tear down the existing Ponderosa restaurant -- at the University Drive Extension and Atherton Street -- and make space for a new CVS Pharmacy.

Earlier coverage

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