HARTFORD — Just five years after it opened, the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford is scheduled to get a $4 million state grant this week to launch an ambitious 10-year plan to expand and upgrade its exhibits and facilities.
State officials said that some of the center's expansion plans include creating more educational lab space, transforming one portion of the existing building into a greenhouse and butterfly conservatory, and paying off debts related to the center's heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
The money is part of a $10.5 million bond authorization for the project approved by the General Assembly. State officials say the science center's staff also expects to raise $3.5 million to $5 million to help pay for the expansion, which is intended to broaden the center's appeal and attract more visitors.
"It's the first step in a longer-range plan," said Gian-Carl Casa, a spokesman for the state's Office of Policy and Management.
"This is the beginning of the project," said Rie Poirier-Campbell, the science center's vice president for advancement. "We're building out the details right now."
She said the biggest parts of the overall expansion involve the additional lab space for education and new exhibits to explain to young people the fields of genomics and engineering. "These new exhibits are really geared around future careers," Poirier-Campbell said.
The design and planning phase of the expansion project is already underway, Poirier-Campbell said. She said the expectation is that the majority of projects will be completed in the next five or six years.
The original plans for the science center included having a greenhouse-butterfly conservatory, but that was postponed because of funding issues. "In the middle of a recession, there are some things you have to put off," she said.
Casa said that about $2.1 million of the grant will be used to pay off debt on the center's existing heating, cooling and ventilation system, and the rest of the $4 million will go toward design, development and installation of new exhibits.
The State Bond Commission is expected to approve the $4 million grant at its meeting Friday.
The additional funding for the heating and cooling system drew questions from two Republican senators, L. Scott Frantz of Greenwich and Rob Kane of Watertown. They wrote to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this week asking why money was needed for a heating and cooling system that was only five years old.
Frantz and Kane said Thursday that they had no problems with additional state funding to upgrade and expand exhibits at the science center. "I love the Connecticut Science Center," Frantz said. "I'm not looking to give them a hard time at all."
But Kane said he still wants to know why money that the state has borrowed — which will cost taxpayers interest payments — is being used to retire existing debt on the heating and ventilation system.
"Why are there those outstanding debts?" Kane asked.
Poirier-Campbell said that the heating and cooling system was part of the original construction, but that its cost wasn't entirely covered by the state and private funding used to build the center. She said that using the state funds now to pay off those debts will free up funding in the future for the center.
The center was built using more than $124 million in state funding and another $40 million-plus in private contributions. It opened in 2009, and now has 300,000 visitors annually.
State taxpayers continue to subsidize the science center for about $600,000 a year.
Just last year, the center settled a multiyear, $10 million lawsuit against Cesar Pelli and Associates, the designer of the science center building, and several contractors. Major problems were encountered in construction of the center's "magic carpet" roof, which delayed the center's opening by 18 months.
Science center officials said that details of the negotiated settlement were confidential.