Fixer-Upper: David Chesebrough retires from COSI

Kathy Lynn Gray
Chesebrough retired in December after more than 10 years at the helm of COSI.

When David Chesebrough moved to Columbus in 2006 to resuscitate the beleaguered COSI, the once-popular facility couldn't even pay its staff.

“We had enough cash on hand for half a payroll,” Chesebrough recalled of his first few harrowing months on the job. “And there was no reserve.”

But Chesebrough had successfully turned around two other faltering science centers, and he was convinced he could do the same here.

Fast forward 10 years, to December 2016. As Chesebrough prepared to retire as COSI's president and CEO, the facility has regained its financial footing with a $3 million rainy day fund, a healthy revenue stream and a budget surplus. And it's once again a favorite family destination: In fiscal year 2016, 670,041 visitors came through the doors—about 5,000 more than the prior year.

Perhaps most importantly, a community that had all but turned its back on the center after it moved from a cozy space on East Broad Street to the former Central High School on the Scioto River has once again embraced it.

The revamped COSI, a 300,000-square-foot behemoth, opened to much fanfare in 1999. But it foundered as attendance plummeted, expenses skyrocketed and voters overwhelmingly defeated a last-ditch levy to support it in 2004. Much of the building had to be mothballed to save money, and staff and operating hours were slashed.

“It was too big to be a science center,” Chesebrough, 65, said. “But I thought, ‘Maybe we're not too big to be a center of science.' ”

Toward that end, he lured Ohio State University researchers, who rent space in COSI and conduct research while visitors watch. WOSU-TV moved its studio there. Businesses such as Honda and American Electric Power sponsor hands-on exhibits. Columbus City Schools and Battelle offer educational programs.

The efforts not only helped pay the rent, but also expanded Central Ohioans' exposure to and interest in the center. “The public started to see freshness at COSI,” Chesebrough said. “Going from a science center to a center for science gave us the skills and talents of the community and new things to offer to the public.”

Chesebrough also brought back concepts that had been popular at “old COSI,” such as science experiments performed live throughout the building, colorful walls plastered with displays and eye-catching items at the building's entrance.

“They (the designers of the new building) had set aside what everyone knew and loved about COSI,” Chesebrough said. “We didn't have legitimacy in the community anymore.”

‘A Signature Institution'

Bud Rock, president and CEO of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, said Chesebrough was an early adopter of a new business model where such facilities have ongoing, mutual relationships with other community partners.

“He took the leadership of COSI and did a wonderful job of making it a signature institution in Columbus,” Rock said. “He not only developed the institution internally, but developed programs so that a young person can come in and be inspired in a variety of different ways.”

Mike Louge, chairman of the COSI board of trustees, said Chesebrough's leadership turned the facility around. In addition to connecting with the community, he brought an emphasis on customer service—making sure every visitor has the best possible experience every time. And though ticket prices (which some criticized as too high) didn't decrease, COSI launched a variety of discounts that helped spur attendance.

Over time, Chesebrough reopened closed portions of the building until the entire structure once again was in use. He updated COSI's technology and modernized little kidspace—one of the most popular exhibits—so it would remain “the top jewel in our crown, always,” he said. And he drove the effort to bring a planetarium to Central Ohio families.

Chesebrough also set in motion a partnership with the venerable American Museum of Natural History in New York City, announced in September, that will bring a permanent dinosaur exhibit to COSI in late 2017 and traveling exhibits beginning in 2018. Kids are sure to love the centerpiece: a life-size model of a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil.

He also helped COSI establish itself as the anchor of the Scioto Peninsula redevelopment plan that includes 21 acres of office space, housing, stores, an underground parking garage and the National Veterans Memorial & Museum currently under construction. “It'll truly be a destination, and it'll draw a lot of people down here,” Louge said.

Chesebrough, though, will watch those developments from the sidelines. “I decided that now's the perfect time to bring in a new leader,” he said. “I'm leaving knowing that city leaders know the value of COSI and are committed to it.”

He plans to spend more time with Dottie, his wife of 43 years, as well as their three daughters, grandchildren and aging parents. The couple plans to remain in Central Ohio. And he'll be on hand in case his successor, Frederic Bertley, needs a word or two of advice.

“I'm thrilled with Frederic, and I know I'm leaving behind a strong leadership team,” Chesebrough said. “Right now, I'd rather be a senior statesman.”