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Exploris needs $13.5 million

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By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Exploris museum in Raleigh says it needs to raise up to $13.5 million over four years to retire its debt and boost operations, exhibits and attendance.

The museum also has replaced its volunteer leadership and expanded its board to 30 members from 24.

Gordon Smith III, Exploris’ founder, has resigned as chair and in October will step down from the board, which has added 16 members and now is chaired by William D. Johnson, group president-energy delivery for Progress Energy, with Jim Talton, a former executive with KPMG, serving as vice-chair.

Based on a four-year business plan prepared by Exploris, the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 20 appropriated $326,000 to the museum through January 2005.

“The new board leaders understand the situation and the context,” says Wake County Manager David Cooke. “They know change has to occur, and they know the timetable is short.”

The Wake commissioners in June allocated $1,355,000 for Exploris for the fiscal year that started July 1, down $100,000 from the previous year, but initially appropriated only one-third of that, delaying additional funds until Exploris submitted a business plan.

While they now have appropriated funds through January, the commissioners will wait until then to consider whether to appropriate the remaining allocated funds.

The commissioners also agreed to study the possibility of locating a downtown branch of the Wake public libraries at the museum, which says in its plan it also wants to explore that idea.

Exploris says in its business plan it is “committed to creating dramatic change,” including a need to “enhance the visitor’s experience in the museum, increase visitation, build leadership, and diversify and expand earned and contributed funding sources.”

Citing a lack of capital to improve and change its exhibits and market itself, Exploris says it aims to retire its $5 million debt, launch a capital campaign to raise $6.1 million for operations and improvements, and win annual renewal of state funding that this year totals $500,000.

The museum board’s two key challenges, says Cooke, are to retire the debt, a target he calls “pretty aggressive,” and to persuade state lawmakers to provide an annual appropriation for Exploris.

Exploris, which has received more than $50 million in public and private funds, plans to create a foundation to conduct the capital campaign and to name a foundation chair and board by the end of the year.

As part of its capital campaign, Exploris hopes to raise $325,000 in private contributions by June 30, 2005, secure a $500,000 state appropriation for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2005, and retire at least half its debt by the end of 2005.

It also aims to sell 223,000 tickets for its exhibit hall and IMAX theater in the current fiscal year, and already is ahead of sales projections for the first quarter, says Rod Brooks, vice president for administration.

Exploris aims to remake itself as a global museum and community center, and attract visitors through major exhibits that emphasize person-to-person connections with people throughout the world and are linked to movies at its IMAX theater.

While attendance at its China on Tour exhibit that opened April 3 totaled 35,244, compared to 64,000 Exploris had estimated, for example, attendance was up by nearly half from the same period the previous year.

Combined ticket sales for the exhibit and a related movie at the IMAX theater averaged 40 percent to 44 percent of weekly ticket sales for the period, compared to 15 percent to 17 percent before the exhibit, Brooks says.

Exploris also raised $156,000 in private contributions for the exhibit before it opened, and recruited 130 volunteers who contributed more than 7,000 hours to the exhibit.

Building on that initial major exhibit, Exploris in April will host “Latin Jazz,” a traveling exhibit of the Smithsonian Institution, and hopes to host a “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit next fall and a “Trail of the Mummy” exhibit in the summer of 2006.

And in October, the IMAX theater is introducing 3D movies.

The annual budget for Exploris, which covers operations for its exhibit halls, IMAX theater and middle school, totals just over $6 million for the fiscal year that began July 1, up from nearly $5.2 million the previous year.

Last year’s budget ended with a surplus of just over $109,000, including a deficit of just over $67,000 for the exhibit halls, and surpluses of just over $68,000 for IMAX and just over $108,000 for the middle school.

The overall surplus, which reversed a $773,000 deficit the previous year and reflected a 6 percent rise in attendance, did not include depreciation, a non-cash expense expected to be roughly $1 million, and included $225,000 in gifts and grants received in June, Brooks says.

The business plan says debt service and repayment of the principal on Exploris’ $5 million debt costs $250,000 to $350,000 a year.

It says admissions to Exploris’ exhibit halls and IMAX theater totaled 189,218 in the fiscal year ended June 30, compared to 178,165 a year earlier and 206,924 two years ago.

Attendance at Exploris’ IMAX theater, which opened in November 2001, totaled 165,487 in the most recent fiscal year, compared to 156,794 the previous year and 168,774 two years ago.

Attendance at Exploris’ exhibit halls and IMAX theater by elementary, middle and high school students totaled 65,069 in the most recent fiscal year, compared to 51,077 the previous year and 56,335 two years ago.

Repeat visitors are “critical to Exploris’ success in this market,” the plan says, requiring “constant change and new visitors to return.”

It estimates attendance in its exhibit hall will fall to 60,000 this year from 65,972 last year, and then grow to 65,000 in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2005, and that attendance in the IMAX theater will fall to 163,000 this year before growing to 165,000 in the fiscal year that begins next July 1.

Exploris’ four-year plan says it will need to raise $2.4 million for basic operations, $734,000 to enhance operations and $2.95 million in capital investments.

The business plan also cites the level of annual state support for similar private, nonprofit museums, including $624,536 for Discovery Place in Charlotte, $388,359 for the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham, $183,446 for the Natural Science Center of Greensboro and $147,600 for SciWorks Science Center in Winston-Salem.

While Exploris receives roughly the same percentage of public support as do those other museums, Brooks says, Wake County accounts for nearly all its public support.

“We recognize we must diversify our sources of public funds going forward,” Brooks says, “and this is a key priority of our business plan.”

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