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Is Raleigh's Exploris Museum A Good Use Of Tax Money?

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RALEIGH, N.C. — It has been called a catalyst for downtown Raleigh's revitalization, but some critics call Exploris Museum a drain on taxpayers' money.

The 2 1/2-year-old museum sits on $5 million in debt, paying interest only on the loans.

Exploris carved a bold niche in the museum world in 1999, calling itself the first global experience center.

In 2001, the highly touted IMAX Theater opened in downtown Raleigh. Now, more than $50 million in public and private money later, Exploris faces some critical reviews.

"Somewhere along the line, Exploris failed," said Dale Gibson, managing editor of the

Triangle Business Journal


Gibson calls Exploris "a well-intentioned idea that didn't work."

"I was extremely disappointed," he said. "I don't think they know who their target audience is. Is it children or is it adults? For the amount of money we've spent on this museum, they are uninspired and unexciting."

Gibson and others said Exploris is just not drawing enough paying customers, never coming close to breaking even. An audit shows that Exploris spent $3.3 million more than it received in the fiscal year that ended last summer.

"It can be deceiving because of outward appearances. This is a grownup skin, but a toddler inside," said Anne Bryan, Exploris president.

Bryan and Board Chairman Gordon Smith ask for patience. They point out that construction costs for things like IMAX have contributed to the early budget shortfalls.

IMAX helped double annual attendance from 100,000 to 200,000.This year, museum leaders predict attendance will climb to 210,000.

Still, that is far less than the projected 265,000 visitors museum leaders told Raleigh city leaders would visit IMAX alone when they asked for tax money to build.

"But, we don't know. We're so young. We don't have any trend lines," Bryan said.

This year, Exploris will get more than $2 million from Wake County for operating and maintenance costs.

In comparison, the

Museum of Life and Science

in Durham, which is decades older, gets a combined $1.2 million from the county and state.

WRAL poured over financial documents with certified public accountant Mig Murphy Sistrom. Sistrom deals only in nonprofits.

"The major concern, I think, is their cash flow. They have a lot of debt and not a lot of cash," Sistrom said.

Considering the young age of Exploris though, Sistrom finds plenty of positives in the numbers. She said private contributions seem to be solid, and even more importantly, about 75 percent of revenue goes into programs. That is a better percentage than Life and Science.

"The fact that their program services are very high and therefore their administrative costs are very low in relation to their total expenses and the fact that their income is up 81 percent in one year, indicates that they're certainly on the right track," she said.

Aside from the finances, Exploris is also facing some perception problems. Leaders will not break down numbers to see how many people are going to IMAX and how many are visiting the museum.

An unusual arrangement makes Bryan a state employee, so because of past service, she will soon be eligible for 30-year retirement benefits.

Also, Exploris paid Bryan's sister, Julia, more than $100,000 over two years to work as a grant writer. Leaders contend she more than earned the money, but now she is off the payroll.

Smith compares the museum to the Carolina Hurricanes, who struggled a few years before winning over fans. Gibson agrees that Exploris deserves more time to prove itself.

However, Gibson said, "I just happen to believe that Exploris is a lot further away from winning the Stanley Cup than the Hurricanes are if that is the Stanley Cup of museums. They have a long way to go in my opinion."

"I hope that people will be patient," Smith said. I also do want to say that we recognize that there's a concern about the visitor experience and we're going to make a special effort on that."

As Exploris leaders chase that goal, they feel increasing pressure from taxpayers to produce.

This fiscal year, Exploris leaders predict the museum will break even. Wake County Manager David Cooke said all taxpayer contributions to Exploris will be reevaluated on an annual basis.