The Arizona Challenger Space Center is moving. But its 360-degree mural by the late Robert McCall, who did work for NASA, among others, will not be making the trip.
A former museum building in downtown Glendale or a start-up business center on Bell Road in Surprise could be the new home of the Arizona Challenger Space Center.
According to records obtained by The Arizona Republic, city officials in Glendale and Surprise are working to attract the science- and technology-focused non-profit to city-owned property before the end of the month.
Surprise proposed housing the space center in a 3,900-square-foot office space in its AZ TechCelerator — a start-up business co-working space on Bell and El Mirage roads, which was the former city hall complex.
Glendale hasn’t settled on an offer yet, but Challenger Space Center leaders have met with council members and talks have focused on the 6,735 square-feet vacant Bead Museum in the city’s downtown.
The Challenger Space Center closed on Aug. 5 after a sale was announced for the 28,000-square-foot building in Peoria where the non-profit first launched operations in 2000. That building was acquired in mid-August by the Peoria Unified School District in a land-swap deal with Kevin Knight of the Knight Transportation Group — a longtime benefactor of the space center.
A $3 million mortgage on the building has weighed down the center for years. The organization’s leadership sees the relocation as an opportunity to jumpstart its finances with a city’s support.
The organization must move out of the current building on 83rd Avenue near Lake Pleasant Parkway by Sept. 30. The center attracts about 33,000 visitors per year, and has a space-mission simulator, offers robotics classes and has exhibits with meteorite specimens, astronaut gear and patches.
Looking for the right space
The local Challenger organization is looking to move into a building that would have at least:
- 30,000 square feet of space to accommodate classrooms and a lunch room, a space mission simulator and art exhibits.
- Parking to accommodate school buses and 20-30 personal vehicles.
In the future, the organization also has envisioned expanded programs such as a planetarium, coding and robotics labs and an innovator space. That would take approximately 40,000 square feet more.
The organization is hoping to have the space donated — meaning free rent — or utilities covered, according to a Challenger document shared with Glendale.
Bob Rasmussen, chairman of the Arizona Challenger Space Center Board of Directors, said free rent is not a requirement in the deal, but a “reasonable cost of rent” is ideal so the organization can focus on funding its programs.
The center has consistently seen annual budget shortfalls since at least 2007. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, annual shortfalls ranged from about $350,000 to $800,000, according to tax documents.
The deficit topped $1 million in 2015. The center cut staff to four full-time employees and 15 to 18 part-time employees in fiscal year 2017 to reduce expenses, Executive Director Beverly Swayman told The Republic in July.
But the relocation allows the center to turn its financial situation around, Rasmussen said.
“Regardless of whether we end up in Glendale or Surprise, we see this as a way to really put ourselves on a firm foundation moving forward,” he said.
In early August, Surprise’s economic development team offered the Challenger Space Center free office space.
The 3,900-square-foot location is much smaller than the 28,000-square-feet building that housed the center for 17 years, but Surprise offered it as a short-term fix.
“Our community shares a long-term vision for providing educational excellence, and while I have not been successful just yet at identifying a Surprise long-term location, potentially the extended time provided by housing in temporary space will give us the opportunity to better advance that with the local development community to everyone’s benefit,” said Jeanine Jerkovic, the city’s economic development director.
The space is available in mid-October.
The Challenger board is considering the offer.
In communications between Glendale staff obtained by The Republic, two city-owned locations were named for possible consideration: the Bead Museum and the Glendale Civic Center.
However, Mayor Jerry Weiers confirmed to The Arizona Republic that the Civic Center — an event rental venue — won’t be re-purposed to house the space center. It would be available for special-events rental if the organization desires, he said.
Weiers said the former Bead Museum space, which has been vacant since January 2016, would offer the space center a “great location and access to a lot more people” than the Peoria location offered.
“We’d like to see them in Glendale,” Weiers said.
Kari Sliva, the mayor’s chief of staff, has facilitated meetings and conversations between Glendale staff, elected officials and the center’s leadership. Sliva was the executive director for the center for several years.
Glendale business owners wrote to the mayor and council members mostly in support of Glendale partnering with the non-profit, calling it “an incredible opportunity” that could add to the city’s downtown experience.
Dave Chang, a downtown business owner, was one of those business owners. He said that area merchants don’t benefit from the patrons of the Civic Center and a science education-oriented group would be a positive addition to the community.
“Glendale is more than sports, outlet stores, casinos and warehouses,” Chang wrote. “I hope Glendale can educate and promote science. Who knows, the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs may have their start at the Challenger Space Center.”
Andrea Shobe, of The Hop Stop Diner, wrote there’s very few occasions when patrons of the Civic Center poured into her business. “Acquiring the space center could be exactly what we need in downtown to revitalize.”
Payam Raouf, of Arizona Property Management & Investments, said Challenger should modernize its exhibits and flight simulators before the city considers partnering. He cited several negative reviews noting “exhibits all look 15 years old” and “a ‘flight simulator’ that I’m sure I played in 1990.”
Rasmussen, from the space center’s board, said they hope to have a deal set by the end of the month.
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