Atwater science museum closing

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comAugust 22, 2012 

— The Castle Science and Technology Center will be closing permanently, according to officials with the nonprofit that runs the museum.

The Challenger Learning Center foundation board has announced that it is meeting with an attorney to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, said Dave Olsen, foundation chairman.

"We don't see any way that we can continue," he said. "We've often said in the past that it's a miracle we're still here. Well, the miracle is coming to an end."

The decision comes after Merced County officials last year stopped roughly $12,500 monthly payments to the foundation, which were established under an agreement approved in 2003, giving the county control of the property. The county tried, but never has been able, to reach a lease deal with the center.

Over the past two years, county officials have maintained that the contract became void in 2006 when the U.S. government transferred ownership of Castle Air Force Base to the county.

"The decision was made to cease paying for a piece of property the county already owned," said Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County.

County officials had said the nonprofit needed to start paying rent in the foreseeable future. Since

the foundation was started 16 years ago, it has occupied the location at little or no charge.

The county has made several offers, including a lease for about $330,000 a year with no payments for the first five years.

"The county has always believed and hoped for a solution to be found that would have assured Challenger's success in the short and the long term," Hendrickson said.

The Challenger foundation repeatedly has refused the county's overtures.

The organization, with an annual budget of about $400,000, cannot survive if it has to pay rent, Olsen said.

"Challenger was never intended to be a cash cow for the county. The agreement was we would live or die on our own fund- raising."

However, it's not clear the nonprofit could survive even if it could continue using the location for free.

After losing the monthly payments from the county, the Challenger foundation defaulted on a loan of more than $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The nonprofit also has seen its main source of revenue, school trips to the museum, drop by almost half, Olsen said. "We've just seen a month by month decline in our financial situation."

The Aviation Challenge part of the organization closed its doors in 2002 because of money woes.

Tom Tanioka, a retired teacher who worked as the director of education at the center, lamented the loss:

"We had the best science museum in the San Joaquin Valley, a fantastic resource for the community. You can blame it on the tough economy. The other side is there wasn't enough money and support coming in."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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