Compromise Approved for Museum in Former City Hall : Thousand Oaks: If Discovery Center finances site's renovation, it could earn the right to rent-free use. But the council isn't making any promises.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No exhibits have opened, no labs have materialized, but the proposed Ventura County Discovery Center has already taught residents a key lesson in science--political science.

Before an enthusiastic audience of children and adults, Thousand Oaks council members forged a compromise that gives the proposed museum a shot at leasing the former City Hall, but retains the city's flexibility to consider better offers.

Council members on Tuesday unanimously voiced support for the concept of a center in the sleek gray building tucked into a slope at 401 W. Hillcrest Drive. And they encouraged museum supporters to begin raising money to repair the abandoned City Hall, which sits shabby and neglected.

But they warned that they cannot simply give away a valuable asset to a nonprofit group, however worthy the cause.

"The Discovery Center is a wonderful concept, but it's not a proven entity," Councilwoman Judy Lazar said. "They've got to come up with the money."

Thus, the compromise: If Discovery Center backers amass $600,000 to renovate the former City Hall, the council will consider letting them use the facility, rent free, for five years. If, however, a richer tenant bids to lease the building, the council may accept that offer.

"We would have liked to see more commitment from the city, but we're still very pleased," said Hope Colt-Mette, who serves as vice president of the museum group's board of directors. "There's a terrific possibility that we can do it."

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Council members have long counted on raising $13 million from the sale or lease of the old City Hall to pay off debts from the Civic Arts Plaza project.

Even if the Discovery Center cannot afford to pay market-rate leases, however, the city could still reap revenue from the Hillcrest Drive site by subdividing the property and auctioning part of it off to developers.

Architect Gary Heathcote, who studied the parcel on a citizens committee earlier this year, suggested that the city could approve a restaurant or even condominiums along the property's fringes.

Such development might be compatible with a museum--allowing council members to give the Discovery Center a break without breaking the city's budget, he said in an interview.

"That concept is extremely viable and it lets the city off the hook," Heathcote said. Wearing an orange pin in support of the Discovery Center, Heathcote added: "This is such a great idea. As a museum site, it's fabulous."

Equally excited, more than 100 Discovery Center backers streamed out of the council meeting Tuesday night eager to start reeling in funding commitments.

"Now we have the hard work to do," said Gary Elliot, an associate scientist at the biotechnology firm Amgen Inc.

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Museum supporters said they have lined up tentative commitments from several major corporations, and will pursue federal grants.

They aim to fill about 50,000 square feet with hands-on displays, technology labs, and exhibits exploring the link between science and the arts. They also hope to develop a nature curriculum that would teach visitors about the outdoors through overnight camp-outs and day hikes.

Their plans have won support from a diverse group, including teachers, scientists, artists, lawyers and even a virtual reality expert.

"In today's society, everybody really sees the need for science museums," Elliott said. "It's in the news every day, from the O.J. Simpson trial to computers to the Internet. A center like this would be a great resource for teachers, a showplace for technology and a fun learning experience for kids."

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