Through changes and challenges, Whitaker Center takes long view
Adolescence is a time of challenge and change, and Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts is right in the middle of it.
The Harrisburg nonprofit will celebrate its 13th birthday in September, but it's not just age that makes the metaphor apt. Even the philosophy advocated by its president and CEO, Michael L. Hanes, sounds as if it could come from a parent.
"My experience has been that the things that are really important and really worthwhile don't happen overnight," Hanes said. "They take time and they take focus and they take energy."
That long-term focus has seen much use lately as the center's directors work to keep it exciting and relevant while also striving to reduce the operating deficits that have plagued it nearly since its beginning.
"I think most nonprofit organizations will tell you, if they're fortunate enough to have endowment funds and the economy takes a downward turn, it's a double challenge," said Hanes, who has been with the center since 2007. The value of investments drops, and contributions tend to go down because donors' own assets have taken a hit.
Tax records show that in 2006, the center received $2,433,670 in contributions. By 2010, they had dropped to $1,500,927.
Some of the center's financial difficulties predated the economy's tumble. From 2006 to 2010, its operating expenses averaged more than $7 million a year, according to tax records, with deficits averaging more than $1 million a year. Hanes said the deficit trend began in 2000.
"That's one of my challenges, to find a way to reduce that to a much more manageable number," Hanes said. "From 2007 to 2010, we actually reduced our expenses by about 27 percent. We have been systematically attacking that challenge, and our goal is to continue to reduce that number going forward."
About half of the operating shortfall is covered by income from the endowment, Hanes said, and the other half comes from other sources. The center's endowment currently stands at just more than $5.2 million, according to Hanes.
Hanes also said that during the last four or five years, the center has reduced its debt significantly. In addition to its access to a $2 million line of credit, it recently obtained a $590,000 mortgage on its office space on the second floor of 225 Market St. in Harrisburg — with the mortgage replacing a $1.5 million one that it paid down.
This summer, the center posted an ad for a director of development, to cultivate grants, gifts and sponsorships. Hanes said the director of development who left in 2009 had 14 years of experience with the center and a museum that preceded it. The most recent director decided to change careers.
Hanes hopes to fill the position within the next month or so, noting that the center's three main programs are so diverse that the job requires someone "with a breadth of experience and understanding."
The economy also had an effect on visitors. Hanes said reservations by school groups dipped temporarily a couple of years ago during state budget difficulties, but they were mostly back to normal by the end of that year.
This year, he said, "We've actually seen an increase in the number of reservations."
Generally, he said, the center's core attendance groups have continued to be interested and return to the center a number of times — but the center would like to increase the frequency of their visits.
"One of our major goals is to have people come visit two to three times a year, instead of every two to three years," he said.
New interactive exhibits also are designed to encourage visitors to spend more time on their visits and become more engaged with the concepts presented, instead of just walking through.
Many families continue to have financial challenges, Hanes said, and the center is making efforts to keep attendance attainable for them.
One recent promotion is Red Carpet Rewards, in which a $59 membership procures graduated discounts to qualifying live performances, increasing from 10 percent on the first show to 30 percent on the fifth show. Another is a discount for couples who visit the "Leonardo Da Vinci: Machines in Motion" exhibit on Friday evenings.
In 2011, Hanes said, the theater was booked for 292 nights. As of three years ago, the center reduced the number of performances that it sponsors, but he said the program is still going strong and presenting a range of performing arts.
About 30,000 to 35,000 students come to the science center annually for the exhibits, Hanes said. Another 5,000 to 7,000 students participate in the performing arts programs each year, and one of the center's long-term goals is to bring that number up to match the science center's.
"As the school districts continue to cut back their performing arts programs and music programs, we see it as an opportunity to contribute to the education of students," he said.
The center is just finishing a master plan that included renewing the Harsco Science Center by creating five new galleries. The first new gallery was completed in 2008, and the fifth one was finished last February. Hanes said all of the $3.5 million cost for those is either paid for or pledged.
None of the funding for the projects existed in 2007, when the center's leadership was planning, Hanes said, but they decided to proceed anyway: "It was important for us to move in a very deliberate way through the master plan. Once we made that decision, it was a matter of just executing it."
He noted that one of the new galleries, "Move It," ended up bringing the center about 10 brand-new donors from transportation, logistics and manufacturing.
"During a time that has been very unstable economically for us and for the community at large, we continue to find people who are willing to invest and make a difference," he said.
When the center turned 10, Hanes said, the warranties on some of its systems began to expire. As the center maintains and replaces them, it is focusing on energy efficiency, with the result that energy bills are now down about 25 percent. The energy efforts also included redesigning entrances to better retain heating and air conditioning.
Another change is the center's first foray into creating a large-format film and, simultaneously, designing educational materials specifically for use by teachers in grades eight to 12. The project is called "Expedition Chesapeake," and it's slated for release next year.
Hanes said the center discovered a need for good materials about the Chesapeake Bay watershed and also grew to realize that teachers could use a good, comprehensive, engaging source on the subject.
"That's what we're trying to develop," he said.
The materials will be distributed to teachers via the Internet, with the hope that teachers then take the opportunity to bring their students to experience Whitaker Center's exhibit and film. There also will be outreach in the form of a traveling science gallery.
Depending on how this project goes, Hanes said, the center is interested in making educational materials for teachers a larger part of its continuing program and perhaps turning it into a subscription service.
In 2014, Whitaker Center will reach the end of a 10-year, $25 million campaign. Hanes said $17.3 million has been pledged so far, including the funds used to renew the science center and renovate the facility, and he's hopeful the rest of the money will come in.
Marion C. Alexander, who was involved in the founding of the center, is an emeritus director of its board. She said she thinks the Chesapeake program is "a route that we need to go and will put us on the map for the future."
She said she's also excited about the center's existing partnership with the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, in which high school students can witness operations via video and converse with the surgeons.
"I got to experience it, and I was just blown away," she said. "It's really a wonderful, wonderful program."
The center always needs more grants, more people and more members, she said, and the board is "totally aware of it," but she feels deep optimism about the center's future.
Brad Jones, vice president of Harristown Enterprises Inc., which has been active in downtown redevelopment, also said that Whitaker Center plays an important role in Harrisburg's downtown.
"There's a large customer base that probably wouldn't be coming down here if it weren't for the Whitaker Center," he said. "It's a close partner and a key regional asset for the downtown and the community."
"Because the community has been so supportive," Hanes said, "our future continues to be bright."
The Whitaker Center, at 222 Market St., Harrisburg, was built with $52.7 million in private and public funds. It is directed by a 28-member board, and also has a slate of emeritus directors.
The center's three components are as follows:
• Harsco Science Center
• Sunoco Performance Theater
• Select Medical IMAX Theater