Society cuts bait on science center

POULSBO — Plagued by ongoing budget shortfalls, the Marine Science Center will close its doors Feb. 14, and — barring a major financial contribution in the coming weeks — it will be for good.

The board of the Marine Science Society of the Pacific Northwest (MSSPNW) announced Monday that due to budget woes, which include shortfalls ranging from $150,000 to $200,000 per year, it will cease all operations at the center.

“In the absence of a sustainable source for this funding, the society can no longer operate the exhibit hall and has no plans to resume operations in the future,” a statement released by the society said. However, it added that, “the society will entertain offers to purchase or take over operations of the exhibit hall and live marine museum.”

As a result of previous financial problems — including one last May — the society had been in talks with the City of Poulsbo, which owns the facility, and the North Kitsap School District, which operates classes there. NKSD rents the MSC for $36,000 per year while the society pays $12,000, or one-fourth of its rent, to the city. Following several meetings last summer, both the district and city were expecting a new business plan from the MSSPNW that would possibly give both public entities reasons to ease the society’s financial burden.

Poulsbo had just received the business plan a week ago before the society decided to close the center, surprising city hall.

“We just got the business plan last week, so you can imagine it came as a shock,” said Poulsbo Mayor Donna Jean Bruce. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

But the society’s board of trustees was adamant that the center is at the end of its line.

“It was a very emotional decision to make,” said society board member Matthew Cleverley. “But we just found that there was not enough money to continue operating.”

Paradoxically, at a time when the center has never enjoyed higher membership and revenue, the society is pulling the plug on a more than 15-year operation at its existing Poulsbo waterfront location.

“We feel very proud of what we’ve done,” said Sandra Kolb, the MSC’s executive director. “Our program revenues have never been higher and we’ve significantly increased memberships. But I think this is a challenging time for all non-profits.”

The decision also throws into question the North Kitsap School District’s use of the facility.

The district currently has two instructors, Holly Foley and Lillian Cone, who teach two sections each semester at the center, totaling eight classes per year.

Through its K-12 education, about 2,300 North Kitsap students utilize the MSC, ranging from elementary students who take frequent field trips to the center to the four aforementioned high school classes.

Though meetings have been planned, district officials are not yet certain of their next move. The issue will likely be discussed at the school board’s Feb. 10 meeting.

The city was looking at options to help the society foot the bill on its lease. Now, both Poulsbo and the school district will likely decide whether they put forth finances that could save the center.

“I’m disappointed,” said Poulsbo City Council member Kathryn Quade. “I feel (the center) is such a natural fit it in Poulsbo ... But where we go from here I don’t know.”

The society’s business plan was modeled around utilizing more grants and bigger donors. But that plan has simply run out of time, said society president Mike Plumer.

“It’s a situation where we don’t have enough money,” Plumer said. “It would be wonderful if we could run the center for another year and try to switch to the big donor model ... but we’re at the point where we’re insolvent. It’d be unethical ... and illegal for us to continue operating.”

Plumer said that the society has sufficient funds to get through the final week of operations, but there will have to be certain assets sold to cover all of the expenses. As for the exhibits, “All aquatic animals and plants will be returned to their natural environments before live exhibits are shut down,” the released statement said.

“We have struggled the last 10 months for funding but it just hasn’t materialized,” said the society’s treasurer and vice president Brad Allen. “Without the big dollars coming in (the center) can’t sustain itself.”

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