The Austin Chronicle

Planetarium, AISD PAC: Two Dreams to Come True?

By Richard Whittaker, May 21, 2010, News

Austinites have been waiting a long time for both a city planetarium and a districtwide performing arts center for the Austin Independent School District. Now both additions to the city's cultural and educational landscape are edging closer to completion.

Plans for building a local planetarium have been discussed for decades – proposals for one near MoPac were included in renderings for the 1964 Town Lake Beautification Plan – but the Austin Planetarium group hopes recent events will finally end Austin's run as the largest American city without one. On April 16, the body announced two new directors – Karin Richmond, former chair of the Texas Enterprise Zone, and Anthony Platts­mier, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association's local chapter. In addition, said Austin Planetarium Executive Director Torvald Hessel, "We've expanded our advisory board significantly," with Nation­al Instruments co-founder Jeff Kodosky, NASA astronaut Richard Linnehan, and other local dignitaries joining a body that already includes gaming guru and private cosmonaut Richard Garriott.

However, the biggest developments may be in the move toward construction. "We've really seriously started to sit down with both the city and the state to talk about potential locations," said Hessel. They've already met with Council Member Chris Riley, the Greater Austin Chamber of Com­merce, and the Texas Facilities Commission. With the commission working on its new Capitol complex (see "A Capitol Idea? The Capitol Complex Meets the Downtown Austin Plan."), Hessel said, "We are exploring to see if we can be included in that." While the greatest interest has centered on the open lot opposite the Blanton Museum of Art and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, Hessel said other Downtown sites are under consideration. After five decades of on-again, off-again discussions, he said, "We hope to have a site memorandum of understanding within three to six months."

That just leaves finding the money to pay for it. The current plan is for a $60 million state-of-the-art planetarium: A land donation and corporate sponsorships could cut those costs significantly, but that still means a lot of fundraising. However, the latest numbers are encouraging. "Last year was by far our best year," Hessel said, "and to be able to say that in this economy is quite impressive."

While AISD is still looking for a home for its long-delayed performing arts center, at least there's money to pay for it. In fact, Austinites have approved the cash twice as part of larger bond packages. In 2004, voters approved $8.8 million in bonds for a $15 million PAC. In 2008, with inflation kicking in, the board asked for $40 million and got it. Currently, AISD has no large performance facility and loses out on hosting interdistrict events, so the proposed 1,200- to 1,500-seat performance space would be a prestigious addition to its facilities inventory. But as with the planetarium, the question is where to build. While the district has made no formal announcement, speculation has centered around two locations, both close to I-35 and just north of Downtown: the Mueller development and the old Concordia campus. The board has held repeated discussions with staff in executive session, and while they're not quite ready to make any announcement, AISD Facilities Executive Director Paul Turner said, "We're on third base."

As with the planetarium, a land donation could help to cut the project costs, but Turner said he also hopes to take advantage of the current dip in construction costs. "We're hopeful," he said, "that it won't be too much longer before we're able to move forward."

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