In case a reader has been out of town for the last few weeks, its old news that Shreveport’s crown jewel on the Riverfront—the Sciport Discovery Center-- will be shuttered on Labor Day and 72 workers sent home with pink slips. And with the closure many dreams of countless donors to the Center will go down the drain—like yesterdays dirty bath water leaving a big ugly ring around the tub.
In April of this year Dare Johnson, Sciport Board chairman, published a letter to the editor declaring that “Sci-Port Discovery Center” is not closing. You can take us off the endangered species list!” Johnson was replying to what he called “confusion” caused by a Shreveport Times article that focused on a 2016 year end fiscal audit. Johnson said the audit was technically correct but the interpretation was causing concern. Evidently the “panic the near two-decade discovery city is on the brink of extinction” was in fact merited.
At a August 16 news conference, Planet Aqua Group announced that it was taking over the management of Sci-port on Labor Day and that the center would be closed from that day until December 31. (The IMAX movie venue will remain open during this time.) Planet Aqua Group is the company that is opening the Shreveport Aquarium later this month.
In a somewhat lame spin, Sci-Port director Rich Lamb said that the closure should be considered a “rebranding” which would create new efficiencies to ensure survival for the center. Obviously scripted, Lamb called the management agreement with Planet Aqua Group to be “ a very exciting announcement. This is a happy day.” Obviously his perspective was not shared by Sci-port members, employees, and contributors.
Evidently Rich was the chosen proverbial lamb to go to the press conference slaughter; the political and financial heavy weights on the Executive Committee did not make any public statements. These who were noticeably quiet included Dare Johnson (Board chair), Nancy Alexander (Secretary), Joe Badt (Internal Affairs Chair), Linda Biernacki (External Affairs Chair), Robert Manriquez (External Affairs co-chair), and Robert Stroud (Capital Campaign Chair.)
And the same can be said of the other Sci-port directors: Elizabeth Buhler, Claire Childs, Mark Crawford, Trey Giglio, Judy Madison, Russ Mathers, Jennifer Pou, Rocky Rockett, Chris Sale, Delton Smith and Mason Woodward.
The press conference was long on hype and short on key details. A partial list of pertinent questions that need answers include the following:
1. What will be the source of management fees to be paid to Planet Aqua during the two year term of the contract ($113,000 per year)?
2. Will the City of Shreveport continue to pay for maintenance items for the center of approximately $400,000 per year?
3. What will happen to the live animals at the center—snakes, snails, small alligators?
4. Who will pay for the expense of the proposed renovation/reorganization?
5. Will those families who made major donations for set exhibits in the center be reimbursed?
6. Will the planetarium re-open?
7. Did the Board consider other options such as Chapter 11 Bankruptcy reorganization other than closing down? 8. Why did the Board authorize the start of the Children POP construction in May 2106 without full funding in place?
9. Who authorized the spending of restricted funds for operating expenses, and is their any criminal liability for mismanagement of these moneys since Sci-Port is a public non-profit organization?
And the list goes on, and on, an on.......
The dust has not really settled on this major management fiasco; obviously the Board of Directors hope that all the hubbub over the aquarium opening and the possible sports complex will take away the spot light on Sci-Port. Much more revelations on how all this came about are expected and it is possible that litigation will be filed by contributors of restricted funds as well as financial stakeholders. For Sci-port, the fat lady has not sung yet, and when she does, it will probably not be a good night lullaby.