Federal grants help Science Center survive pandemic as crowds slowly return

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The Connecticut Science Center was teeming with visitors one recent afternoon as children stood in awe of animatronic dinosaurs, explored an engineering lab and joined free-flying butterflies in a tropical greenhouse.

Although the crowd was a welcome sight to Science Center President and CEO Matt Fleury, he said his institution — like many venues in Connecticut — is taking a cautious approach as it emerges from the pandemic into an uncertain future.

Federal funds — from Paycheck Protection Program loans and a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant to the free museum admission program that Gov. Ned Lamont launched this summer — are helping the Science Center survive, Fleury said.

But the federal funds won’t be there forever, so the Science Center is treading carefully as it moves forward.

“The business challenge is trying to understand what aspects of the energy we see now — spending and other activity — are driven by the injection of federal funds and what reflect a more organic condition,” Fleury said.

“Looking forward, I would say there are good signs but still many unknowns. So before we rebuild to the level we were, we’re going to be very deliberate about making choices so we won’t get ourselves in a situation where our expenses exceed our revenues on a consistent basis.”

The Science Center’s annual budget fell from about $9.4 million to $7.5 million during the pandemic, and has “run the better part of 12 years essentially breaking even,” Fleury said.

“The goal as a nonprofit is not to make money but to provide an enriching experience to as many people as possible and be here the following year to do it again,” he said.

Adjusting operations

The Science Center was achieving that goal until the pandemic forced its doors to close in March 2020, necessitating staff reductions.

It received about $1.5 million in two PPP loans in 2020 and 2021 and was able to retain about two-thirds of its roughly 90-member staff.

It has made some seasonal hires, but given the current uncertainty, Fleury said every cost must be measured.

“The pandemic forced us to reduce our expenditures, and now when we consider adding those back, we think carefully about the sustainability of those expenses,” he said.

The Science Center has also lost considerable revenue from things like concessions. The $1.7 million shuttered venue grant enabled it to mitigate some of that revenue loss, pay back debt, restore some cuts and plan for the future, Fleury said.

When the Science Center reopened in June 2020, it had a skeleton staff as attendance was low. Things started to pick up earlier this year, Fleury said. They expected spring attendance would be about 25% of normal, but it was 50%.

“And when the governor announced the free summer program, which he did right here at the Science Center, we’ve seen a tremendous response,” he said. “People are excited about being out, being together, experiencing science and having fun.”

The governor’s plan reimburses the Science Center for free admission for children under 18 and one accompanying adult. It gets additional revenue when visitors buy concessions and pay admission to certain exhibits.

“The governor’s program has introduced us to many new families that had not previously enjoyed the Science Center,” said board member Bill Malugen, a Travelers Cos. executive.

Fleury isn’t sure if those first-time visitors will return, especially given concerns with the delta variant.

“But we believe that doing the things we can influence — providing a fantastic experience, reaching out to people, putting excellent value on the table — will resonate long term,” he said.

Last summer the Science Center developed a three-year plan with preliminary assumptions about how long the recovery would take.

“Right now, we’re substantially ahead of that because of pandemic funding, but also because the overall activity has been greater than we expected at this stage,” Fleury said. “I think we feel very optimistic that there is a positive trend.”

Another positive to come from the pandemic was the Science Center’s immediate and successful virtual pivot. It presented hundreds of online programs to schools and community centers throughout Connecticut and the region — and continues to present them.

“The team did an excellent job adjusting operations and transitioning from delivering a quality in-person experience at the Science Center and in schools to building and delivering more virtual content,” Malugen said. “This required a lot of tough choices as well as making decisions without having all the information we would have liked to have. Largely, I think things have worked out well.”

Hopeful future

The Science Center is one of many arts, learning and cultural facilities trying to survive the pandemic.

“The arts-and-cultural sector in Greater Hartford is still very much in recovery with many organizations just now beginning to reopen and artists still trying to build back a full schedule of performances or exhibitions,” said Kate McOmber, interim CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council. “Every local industry was impacted by the pandemic, but the creative sector was by far one of the hardest hit.”

McOmber said it will take a community effort involving artists, organizations, corporate and government partners and generous donors to get the sector back on solid ground.

As tired as everyone is of the pandemic, Fleury said it continues to be a learning opportunity.

“Our audience has been wonderful about appreciating that science-informed and data-driven practices like mask-wearing and hand-washing and innovations led by the vaccines are truly powerful, life-saving examples of why science is so important,” he said.

So as the Science Center continues to emerge from the pandemic, Fleury is hopeful.

“I think we’re in a position financially and operationally to be a steady, stable organization that can manage through what the future brings,” he said. “I can say that with confidence because we have survived what God-willing will be the worst.”