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Will Children’s Museum of Los Angeles ever open?

The Children’s Museum of Los Angeles is probably the most snakebitten cultural entity in Southern California — if you can even call it an entity.

Years ago, when it actually existed, its leaders and backers had a vision of transforming what had been a small operation in downtown Los Angeles, affording youngsters hands-on experiences with art, culture, history and science, into a major museum in the San Fernando Valley, adjacent to Hansen Dam Recreation Center at the city’s northern edge.

The first step, in 2000, was shutting the downtown museum in anticipation of a relatively swift transition. Operating for 21 years in 17,000-square-foot quarters, a converted Japanese restaurant, the Children’s Museum had attracted about 200,000 visitors annually.

But that seemed like small potatoes. After all, the dot-com boom of the late 1990s hadn’t yet gone bust. Prospective museum donors’ stock portfolios were growing fat, and so were government coffers fed by the taxes on their estimable capital gains. Money, it seemed, was not a problem. The Children’s Museum projected that it would need to raise $33 million; it plunged ahead, undaunted that it never had developed fundraising muscles beyond $750,000 a year — about half its annual operating expenses.

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What a difference a decade makes. The nonprofit organization that ran the museum and pushed for the new building no longer exists. It went bankrupt two years ago, having failed to raise the money needed to create exhibits in the new structure for which taxpayers had advanced $19 million. Among its misfortunes was seeing its biggest donation — a $10-million pledge in 2007 — vanish when the giver, investment executive Bruce Friedman, had his assets frozen after being accused of running a Ponzi scheme. The museum board’s erstwhile partner, the City of Los Angeles, has been left holding the bag — and the empty building.

The bad luck streak continued in April when the city’s best immediate hope of resuscitating the Children’s Museum fell through. State officials turned down L.A.'s request for a $7-million grant from a bond-funded nature education program, which would have covered a third or more of the projected cost of equipping and opening the museum. Patti Keating, chief of grants for the California State Parks, said 118 applicants competed for $58.5 million available for large projects; her department could fund just nine.

While acknowledging the latest setback, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles), who advocated for the Children’s Museum project 10 years ago when he was a City Council member, last week invoked another cultural initiative that was written off by many as an extremely expensive lost cause — until it turned into a resounding success.

“Disney Hall didn’t happen [quickly],” he said. “Ultimately the city came together, the private and the public sector,” and brought home a construction project that had lain dormant for years after money ran out.

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With the Children’s Museum, Padilla said, “it’s my expectation that the final story will be the same. I think it’s still a wonderful concept and opportunity. This is not the end of the line by any means.”

The failed grant proposal had a silver lining: In applying for it, the city was able to recruit a partner with a long track record as a museum operator, the Discovery Science Center of Santa Ana. Missing the grant means there’s no money to jump-start plans to create the planned environment-themed exhibits for the Children’s Museum, but Joe Adams, the Discovery Center’s president, said that he and the center’s board remain enthusiastic about taking on a second site in L.A.

“Our mission is explaining the world of science and making it hands-on,” Adams said. “L.A. has hundreds of thousands of kids who need help and inspiration in science and math, and we would still like to do it.”

Though reviving the Children’s Museum is the city government’s financial responsibility, Adams said the Discovery Science Center will pitch in with fundraising efforts and connections as well as programming and managerial expertise.

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But a clock is ticking to turn this 57,000-square-foot white elephant — yes, most of the two-level building is white — into a going concern.

Construction was paid for out of several different state and local bond coffers and a $960,000 federal grant. The fine print says that if a museum is not up and running by April 2014, the city is obligated to start gradually paying back the construction money. About $7.5 million would be due to the state between 2014 and 2017; the federal chunk would have to be repaid at an undetermined date; and in 2027 the city would have to pay $10.5 million from its now deficit-ridden general fund to a restricted-use bond fund.

City Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose district includes the museum, said the never-opened building also will need some structural modifications: “There’s no loading dock, and the doors aren’t big enough to bring some of these displays in — some of them can be 20 or 25 feet high.”

Nevertheless, Alarcon said, “we are not deterred.” Even in an era when government funds are scarce, he said, there’s a possibility that city agencies whose tasks relate to the environment and natural resources, such as the Department of Water and Power, might be able to allocate money to help fund exhibits that would further the departments’ public-information and consumer-education efforts.

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Alarcon said an array of city agencies and offices, including those of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Recreation and Parks Department and the Bureau of Engineering (to design those bigger loading doors), are “part of the team” trying to revive the museum.

Last fall the City Council OKd a memorandum of understanding with the Discovery Science Center, calling for it to run the Children’s Museum for 30 years. But the agreement is conditional on funding materializing to design and install exhibits. The estimated cost is $16 million to $21 million, although Adams, the Discovery president, said it might be possible to open the museum in stages as the money comes in, rather than waiting to raise the full amount.

According to an estimate by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, staffing and maintaining the Children’s Museum would cost an additional $4 million to $6 million a year.

mike.boehm@latimes.com


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