About 16 home-school students dressed in white lab coats learned the basics of power generation Monday at the Powerhouse Science Center in Durango. After the lesson, they built their own robots powered by AA batteries.
It is a marked difference from one year ago Monday when the Powerhouse abruptly closed its doors, laid off eight employees and gave no indication of reopening.
“We’re feeling like the stars are finally shining down on us,” Lexie Stetson-Lee, Powerhouse administrator, said Monday. “We have some of the staff members back who are the heart and soul of everything. We’re moving forward in a good direction that is sized-down, but scaled appropriately for this community.”
The Powerhouse, which had an operating budget of $871,000 in 2015, closed for almost four months last year as a result of over-optimistic fundraising projections, a steep decline in grants and a staff that had grown too large. Its operating budget is $425,000 this year.
Board members and executive leaders made a tough decision to close to evaluate revenue streams, daily operations and the organizational structure.
The sudden closure came as a shock to donors and many of the nearly 30,000 people who visited or participated in programs during 2014 and 2015.
Some in the nonprofit now believe the closure was unnecessary and an overreaction. Closing the center and laying off employees made it more difficult to rebound, because educators weren’t given a chance to sort through their materials and make them available for future use, said Sarah Margoles, education director.
“The closure itself, it could have been handled better,” she said. “If it had been done in a more productive way, there would have been less work up-front when we reopened to restart all these programs.”
The staff also had to combat rumors of embezzlement and financial mismanagement, Stetson-Lee said. Nothing like that had happened, she said.
Since then, the budget has been cut in half; the staff has shrunk from 14 full-time employees to three full-time employees; and a number of programs have been cut, including after-school activities, early education lessons and in-school out-reach efforts.
About 80 percent of the board of directors has departed, including board president Bill Luthy.
“At that time, a lot of board members felt like it was the right time to go,” Stetson-Lee said. “There was so much work that had to happen, that they exceeded what they thought their volunteer capacity could be.”
Nana Naisbitt, the former executive director, was “let go” by the board, she said.
The organization also has adopted new policies and procedures for tracking staff hours, expenditures, grants and donations. “A lot of it remains the same, but we’re trying to do it in a much more minute way,” Stetson-Lee said.
Instead of stand-and-deliver classroom teaching, the Powerhouse is now more reliant on hands-on activities such as building robots, Stetson-Lee said.
“So many kids don’t have these experiences in their daily lives,” she said. “Things come to them that are pre-made and put together, and they don’t know how to tinker, problem-solve or work on something.”
The staff is applying the same lesson to its own practices. Instead of buying expensive exhibits, the Powerhouse is turning to the community to provide interactive and educational features.
“We can make stuff, build it with local talent and put it on the museum floor,” Stetson-Lee said. “That allows people within the community to have more ownership of what’s going on in that space, as well as to be involved in the making and creating.”
The Powerhouse is open six days a week. It still offers field trips, and this summer will contract with teachers to offer summer camps.
Joe Lounge, manager of the Powerhouse, said he started his day Monday feeling something was special about the day. He didn’t realize it was the one-year anniversary of the Powerhouse’s four-month closure.
On refection, he misses the larger staff and the sense of family that hasn’t fully returned. But he expects that vibrance to come back as attendance picks up this summer.
“We just need to rebuild carefully, cautiously and conservatively, because otherwise, we won’t be learning from any of our mistakes,” he said. “Staff got too big, and the closure solved that problem instantaneously. We just have to build it back up gradually and strategically.”