Space center struggles prompts city to evaluate its options

DOWNEY - By inviting Jim Kidrick, the president and CEO of the San Diego Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park, reputedly the third largest museum of its kind in the U.S., over to the Columbia Memorial Space Center last week to discuss "space center operations as well as potential exhibits and programs," the city signaled its willingness to listen to other minds with more experience and more insight into how a space museum ought to be run.

Kidrick was present at a special city council meeting Oct. 10 where the space center's future was the sole topic.

"We're struggling with our program," Mayor Mario Guerra, who along with sub-committee member Alex Saab and interim executive director Shannon De Long composed the city's representation, said right off the bat. "We built this $10-million, 18,000-sq. ft. facility, with $8-million provided by the city. We've had two executive director 'mortalities', we made $9.8 million from the sale of the land on which Downey Regional Medical Center was built with a percentage of it going into city reserves, and we have now a balanced budget, but we just don't know what to do with our space center."

Guerra pointed to the lack of desired traffic, to the foundation's inability to raise funds, to the membership drives not panning out, to "our not getting a bang for our buck."

All of it sounded like it was desperation time, until Guerra-then Saab-floated a note of optimism, and even shifted to something like an attack mode. "We feel this is an opportunity, that with the envisioned huge retail center soon to rise from the 77-acre property the major part of which was last vacated by Boeing, we think the time is ripe for us to join up with another group so we can grow together," Guerra said.

"Among other things, we're aiming for stability in our operations," added Saab. "We have agreed that it's in our best interests to be open to do things that are different from the past."

It was the cue for Kidrick to speak his mind. Citing San Diego's success with, first, its Star Trek exhibit, then Ripley's Believe It or Not exhibit, Kidrick said they identified their museum's first big challenge as "defining the buyer's experience." In other words, they asked themselves, "What will prompt a first-time museum visitor to come back?" This calls for some real brainstorming, he said, for some really crazy thinking even. In short, he said the crux of the whole thing is to "create memories worth repeating."

People like to have fun when they go out to see something, he said. When they see something that's novel, that's entertaining, they will tell others about it. The best judges at this sort of thing, he said, is kids.

The first time a parent brings a child to an exhibit, or a museum, it'd better be a fun experience or else the second time the parent mentions they're going to the same place, they'll get no response.

Organizationally, Kidrick said, an executive director must not only be from Downey but he must "love Downey". Then he or she can bring your desired stabilizing factor to the museum. People in Downey should take pride and ownership in the facility.

It may be a good idea also if the space center can operate with the least interference from city hall, he added.

Kidrick graciously offered his assistance to the city's future efforts in jumpstarting Columbia Memorial Space Center's program.

"If you need me to attend your meetings, say about once every couple or three months, I'll come," he said. "If you need my opinion on anything at all about your center, call me."

At least there's a lifeline.

********** Published: Oct. 17, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 27