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Rocky wants to combine planetarium and library

Opponents say the numbers 'just don't work'

A planetarium should be married to Salt Lake City's new library and science center, not a shopping center, Mayor Rocky Anderson says. And the new home for the Hansen Planetarium need only cost $4.5 million — not $14 million, the projected cost of locating it at the Boyer Co.'s Gateway project.

The mayor signed off Friday on a proposal to make the planetarium part of a downtown Salt Lake arts-and-sciences complex. Eventually, Anderson said, the city's science center could run the planetarium, freeing Salt Lake County from the costs of operation.

"The transformation of Salt Lake City's Library Square has already begun. Within just a few years, the block immediately east of the Salt Lake City-County Building will become the most vital and exciting civic gathering place" — thus begins Anderson's eight-page illustrated proposal, to be delivered Tuesday to the Salt Lake County Council.

Problem is, the Boyer Co. and the Children's Museum of Utah had another exciting civic gathering place in mind: the Gateway complex. Children's Museum officials have long planned to relocate to Gateway along with the Hansen Planetarium and an array of new educational exhibits. Museum board chairman Brent Sloan predicts Gateway's shopping and entertainment options, including an IMAX theater, will draw 700,000 visitors a year to an interactive complex he calls the "Explorium."

"We want Gateway to do great," said Josh Ewing, the mayor's communications director and co-author of the city's proposal. "But it's more entertainment-, retail- and business-oriented." The planetarium would do better as part of a science- and discovery-oriented block — which is what Anderson envisions around the Main Library.

The city's new library is to be finished in November 2002. It will rise beside the old library building — converted, Ewing said, into SciTech, an interactive science center. Both SciTech and the Hansen Planetarium will be next to four acres of landscaped open space and a TRAX station, if the mayor's plan succeeds.

Installing a new planetarium dome, a Star Rider projection system and seating for 210 people will cost $4.5 million. Ewing said that's $10 million less than what it would cost to build the planetarium at Gateway. "Hopefully the public will see the benefits, the huge savings," said Ewing.

Sloan sees drawbacks, not savings.

"Here's the problem: We need an IMAX theater. It will add another half a million dollars to our bottom line," he said. "In this Explorium, we would offer family packages that include, perhaps, visits to all of the shows," including IMAX screenings, museum exhibitions and star shows, which would be coordinated to generate interest in all three.

Ewing said the new planetarium could share many of the facilities inside the old library building, but Sloan is wary about that, too. "There's a reason the library (planners) decided not to remodel there. The price tag to bring it up to mechanical and seismic code . . . is $14 million to $24 million," he said.

Sloan also expressed concern that there won't be enough parking to accommodate planetarium visitors. An underground garage with some 700 stalls will be put in for the new Main Library. But that won't be enough for the carloads of people he hopes will come to see star shows, Sloan said.

"We applaud the mayor's vision for the block," he said. "But when we added up the numbers, they just don't work."

Both the mayor and Sloan agree that something needs to be done about Hansen Planetarium. Salt Lake County spends about $1.3 million a year on operating costs, Sloan said. But annual attendance has dwindled to about 130,000 visitors.

At their Tuesday meeting, the County Council will have to decide where the planets and stars can flourish: at Gateway beside an IMAX theater and a brand-new shopping center, or on a central square next to a six-story library and a brand-new science center.