No more gloom and doom

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

In 2005, an exhibit on the Titanic kept COSI Columbus afloat amid an ocean of financial troubles and mounting criticism.

The high-profile attraction arrived less than a year after the science museum had cut 67 jobs, closed two days a week and shuttered 32,000 square feet of exhibit space. The 226,000 people who visited the exhibit -- and the corresponding 41 percent increase in gate receipts -- effectively formed a lifeline.

Three years later, COSI has entered much calmer waters: Attendance and revenue have rebounded, museum officials are touting new exhibits and corporate alliances, and the science center has reopened seven days a week during the summer.

COSI continues to attract blue-chip exhibits -- the recently opened "CSI: The Experience" is its third big draw in four years -- but such shows no longer shoulder the burden of sustaining the ship.

"We don't need blockbusters as lifesavers now," said David Chesebrough, president and chief executive officer. "They are now just a part of our mix."

The difference between then and now, Chesebrough said, is a concerted effort by the museum to expand its revenue sources.

In the past three years, the center has begun renting extra space in its W. Broad Street building to science-related partners and more actively pursued grants and state funding -- making the venue less reliant on gate receipts, even as attendance has steadily risen.

The changes have drawn national attention, with the Washington-based Association of Science-Technology Centers -- a group that spurned COSI several years ago because of its financial problems -- planning to bring its 2012 convention to Columbus.

"The progress that has been made over the last couple years is something people in the field are well aware of," said Sean Smith, spokesman for the 540-member association. "The financial picture certainly sounds like it is much better than in 2006."

Six years ago, 76 percent of COSI's $15 million operating budget came from admissions, memberships and facilities rentals, spokeswoman Kelli Nowinsky said. Last year, the figure dropped to 59 percent of the center's $13.3 million in operating revenue.

Making up part of the difference is tenant income, which the center didn't have in 2002.

The museum now has a few occupants, most notably the "WOSU@COSI" exhibit, with more such arrangements in the works, Nowinsky said. In the third year of its 10-year lease, WOSU pays the museum a little more than $200,000 a year for its 12,000 square feet of space.

COSI wants to rent out an additional 20,000 square feet, Nowinsky said, with the hope of bringing in upward of $100,000 by mid-2009.

The Ohio STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Learning Network will become a tenant later this year, Nowinsky said.

More significant than tenant income, though, has been the center's success in securing additional public funding, museum officials say.

As late as 2006, about 1 percent of museum revenue came from public sources. Last year, the figure reached nearly 14 percent, fueled largely by contracts with the city and Franklin County to offer low-income families discounted memberships and educational programs -- both the city and county recently renewed their combined $1.8 million contracts -- as well as a more-active grant-seeking strategy.

"We now have a very active grant program that uses grants from many different sources, which we had not done in any concerted way before," said Carl F. Kohrt, chairman of the COSI governing board of trustees and president and CEO of Battelle. "We have a much broader mix."