Durango’s Powerhouse Science Center is closed indefinitely after the nonprofit organization’s precarious finances came to light.
The group’s board met in an emergency session Friday and decided to close the doors at the children’s museum, 1333 Camino del Rio. Eight employees, constituting most of the staff, have been laid off.
“After four years of treading water, we’re basically now underwater,” Executive Director Nana Naisbitt said in an interview Monday. “The only responsible option was to close the doors and, sadly, let go of nearly all the staff.”
Naisbitt said Powerhouse simply lacked the funding to stay open: “The board had a fiscal responsibility to ensure we could pay employees for the work that they’ve done and refund the summer camps.”
Powerhouse had a budget of about $850,000 last year, Naisbitt said.
“It’s definitely been a very difficult decision,” said board member Peggy Zemach. “The numbers were the bottom line.”
Board president Bill Luthy said he was caught off-guard by the financial revelations.
“We felt like we were fine for the year and were going to be able to finish our commitments,” he said.
Luthy added: “It’s terrible. I’ve been involved since we’ve been open. My kids are involved. I felt a strong commitment to the staff and the community. It’s kind of a worst-case scenario.”
The only employees remaining are Naisbitt and Joe Lounge, a retired Fort Lewis College professor who has served as exhibits and facilities manager.
They said Powerhouse would seek ongoing public funding for its operations. Powerhouse Science Center is envisioned as part of the proposed Durango STEAM Park project that would be built along the Animas River Trail at an estimated cost of $30 million. Zemach is also a board member of the science, theatre, entertainment, arts and music park project.
Similar children’s museums around the nation receive public funding, at an average level of 35 percent of their budgets, Naisbitt said.
“By the generosity of our donors, we’ve survived four years without public support,” she said.
The nonprofit’s prospects of receiving public funding are unclear. Zemach said the group has been in discussions with the city of Durango. Yet, local taxpayers are being asked to consider major upgrades at Durango-La Plata County Airport and the city’s sewer plant, along with a possible property-tax increase for county government.
Naisbitt said the nonprofit would have to be run differently.
“For years, the Powerhouse has been giving away its facility and grounds, either for free or for below-cost, for school events or for other nonprofit events,” she said. “This was done in the spirit of community. However, that is unsustainable as there are real costs involved in hosting such events. Also, we have often given away our programs in the same spirit. All this has contributed to the current financial crisis.”
Powerhouse opened in February 2011 in the historic building that once housed the nation’s first alternate-current power plant. Before that, it existed as a children’s museum within Durango Arts Center.
Powerhouse had 20,000 paying visitors in 2014, along with 6,500 schoolchildren who came on field trips.
Naisbitt became executive director in April, taking over from interim director Brett Cadwell, who previously served as the finance director.
Naisbitt said there was no financial mismanagement involved in Powerhouse’s closure.
“The staff over the years has done their absolute best to pour their heart and soul into it and make it function,” she said.
Naisbitt said the museum would reopen with a renewed focus on children’s science programs, particularly for ages 2 to 11.
“There has needed to be a sustainable business model, and I know we can create one with a base of public funding,” she said.