MSC needs help to remain afloat

POULSBO — Barbara Erickson knows first-hand the power that a facility like the Marine Science Center has in the lives of people.

Originally from Montana, she didn’t actually see an ocean until she was an adult — and she was instantly hooked.

After 10 years volunteering with Poulsbo’s MSC, and now two years as its Education Director, Erickson retains the same enthusiasm for the marine environment. When asked what benefits she sees in having such a program in Little Norway, she replied simply, “How much time have you got?”

Members of the Marine Science Society of the Pacific Northwest, which runs the non-profit MSC, are hoping locals see similarly innumerable reasons why the MSC is warranted. They announced last week that the program is in serious financial straights and are seeking help to maintain its presence in the community.

“Every little bit helps and we really need some contributions from big donors, as well as from citizens,” MSC Board member Tom Nordlie said.

Though marking its 13th year at its Front Street location, the MSC actually has a much longer history in Poulsbo. According to a Jan. 23, 1991 North Kitsap Herald story, an older MSC facility was opened in 1968 at an old codfish processing plant on Fjord Drive. In early 1991, the $1.4 million to build the Front Street facility was raised from several sources, including state and county grants, private contributions and the City of Poulsbo selling about $650,000 in bonds. The current center was put into use in September of 1991.

Since then, thousands of locals have gotten to see area marine life up close and personal at the facility. An estimated 20,000 kids and thousands of walk-in visitors visit the MSC every year.

“We handle only local creatures, so it’s an opportunity for people of all ages to get to know about their local waters,” Erickson said. “I don’t think you could ever learn it all.”

Despite the myriad of visitors coming through its doors, the MSC has always struggled financially. With a low yearly membership fee of $35 per family and daily admission prices between $4 and free, ticket sales afford anyone the chance to experience the venue, but little in excess revenue.

Recently, the center also received grant funding for a $168,000 remodel of its exhibits, the first since the 1991 opening. That remodel included the addition of new areas like a Liberty Bay camera, a piling exhibit and computers that track the health of local waters. The problem the center has found is that there are many grants available for non-profits to remodel or add one-time projects, but none that help with operation and maintenance expenses.

Nordlie said board members regularly have gone “knocking on doors” but have never found the reliable revenue stream that they’d hoped for. Numerous fund-raisers and private contributions have helped, but more is needed. Contributions needed are estimated at $5,000 per month.

At its June 9 meeting, MSC board members approached the Poulsbo City Council about help staying open. The MSC currently pays $1,000 and the North Kitsap School District pays $3,000 in rent to Poulsbo for debt repayment on the Front Street building. Finance Director Nanci Lien said the debt was issued through 2011 and in 1998, the rent was reduced to its current level at the request of the MSC board.

“Because we refinanced a couple of years ago, we might be able to do something similar because we reduced our costs,” Lien said.

Lien cautioned that reducing the rent for the MSC, though, would also require reducing rent for the school district.

Lien is also looking into the possibility of deferring the MSC’s rent for about six months and allowing the board to repay it later with interest.

“I’m hopeful we can do something but to what extent and when is up to the powers that be,” Lien said.

Marine Science Society members said they intended to approach the NKSD to see what assistance it might be able to offer.

Among Poulsbo City Council members, support ran high for the home-grown science center.

Councilwoman Connie Lord, who is a dues-paying member of the MSC, urged city staff to do all they could for the MSC and also beseeched her fellow council members to buy memberships to support the center. Noting that the nearest such facilities are in Port Townsend, Seattle and Tacoma, Lord said she felt the entire county should be behind the MSC.

“It’s such a great asset,” Lord said. “I think it’s a little diamond in the rough. People don’t know it’s here and that it’s such a county resource.”

Lord said she often uses her membership card to take her nephew to the center. She also recently took her grandchildren, who were on a visit from their home in Arizona.

“They live in the desert, so they got to touch and see all these things they’d never seen,” she said. “It’s such a valuable resource and one of a handful in the community that people don’t take advantage of.”

Mary Graves of Community Event Productions recently agreed to help the MSC board develop plans to market the center to Poulsbo and beyond. Graves has helped other local non-profits like the Poulsbo Sons of Norway in the same way and said she’s hopeful for the MSC’s chances.

Reorganization has also taken place in order to cut costs. Board member Sandra Kolb is acting as executive director of the center, while Michelle Benedict has been named Marine Systems Operator. Benedict was Executive Director of the MSC the last nine years.

The good news, members said, is that the MSC remains open daily and staff are continuing to offer the same programming they always have. Erickson said staff and volunteers strive to offer activities for young and old on a weekly basis like octopus feedings, guest speakers, story times and an upcoming “Dad and Me” program this Father’s Day weekend where all dads will get in free when they bring their kids.

Friday night, Erickson hosted a sleep-over program at the center for local Girl Scouts as part of the Totem Council marine science patch program. The center offers such special programs for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Campfire Kids and most other groups that request one.

Leading a gaggle of girls through the center, Erickson was met with squeals of surprise and delight as she lifted a sea star out of a touch tank to show them its gelatinous stomach underneath. Though keeping the girls’ attention looked something like herding cats, Erickson wore a big smile on her face.

“I never get tired of this,” she said.

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