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Workman says build planetarium at Gateway

Against a backdrop of pivoting construction cranes, whirring machines and piles of steel, Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman stood Wednesday in the dust of the Gateway development site and reiterated her support for locating the Hansen Planetarium there.

To a crowd of media and other county officials, she tossed out her top 10 reasons for the development to house the planetarium in a joint venture with the Children's Museum of Utah.

She stood adjacent to a gaping hole in the southwest corner of the project, the only glaring portion of the development where steel girders have yet to rise.

That, she said, is the future home of the Hansen Planetarium, a proposal she is convinced the Salt Lake County Council will buy into.

"Once they see the vision, they will like it."

But only one of them — council member David Wilde, was there to catch a glimpse.

Even though Workman extended an invitation to the entire nine members of the council to view the construction site firsthand, only Wilde took the time to attend.

"I personally favor Gateway," he said. "I also felt I owed the mayor the courtesy to come."

The tour was a postscript to Tuesday's County Council debate that had just about every council member chiming in.

Letters, proposals, numbers and arguments on the planetarium's fate flew back and forth between proponents of locating the planetarium at Gateway and opponents who said it would amount to the death of the science venture.

"Gateway is not the best place for an educational institution to be located. The way it is going now, it will be closed," said Cliff White, president of the Hansen Planetarium Foundation Board.

When someone asked White what he meant, he was blunt: "If you go to Gateway, you will bankrupt the planetarium," he said.

The foundation gave the County Council a formal letter of protest over the proposed Gateway site, arguing it had nearly $500,000 to support the planetarium, criticizing the commercial nature of the Gateway development and questioning the Children's Museum's expertise in managing the future of a high-brow intellectual institution.

The board said it had "great doubt" in the museum's ability to run the planetarium and did not want it to become a "sideshow of the Children's Museum."

White argued with the logic of asking the county or its taxpayers to foot the bill for a $20 million venture and then hope it becomes profitable. White said the better way to do business is to raise the money first and then build a new facility. "We can raise the money."

County Council chairman Marv Hendrickson immediately replied, "I like your attitude."

Hendrickson also acknowledged to Gateway proponents that he knew an "explorium" concept touted at Gateway would require an investment commitment from the council, but he cautioned that the county faced other budget priorities.

"We have too much on the table now," he said. "If you talk to the sheriff, the helicopters are a priority over the planetarium."

Council members also debated Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson's proposal to locate the planetarium at the library block at 500 South and 200 East.

As pitched, the planetarium would be adjacent to the renovated main library, which would include space for an exhibit hall.

That proposal, proponents say, would cost considerably less than Gateway, but county officials say the numbers are misleading.

The very fact any Salt Lake County Council members are seriously entertaining the library block as a possibility drew criticism from Seth Jarvis, the newly appointed planetarium director opposed to the library option.

He said council members were too willing to nix a proposal at Gateway that has been years in the making with too little information. "I'm concerned with someone making a quick and dirty decision," he said.

"Gateway puts us where people are. You get them through the door with location, and we will take care of the science."

The whole debate was frustrating to County Council member Jim Bradley, who was directed two weeks ago to flush out information on possible alternative sites to Gateway.

He said the council was erring by mixing the Gateway equation in with other possibilities when the only firm decision the group needed to make was thumbs up or thumbs down on bonding for Gateway.

"It is numbers. It is the number $20 million-plus. Can you say yes or no to that? Otherwise, we have all kinds of time. I don't see this as a contest. We know what the Gateway proposal is. We either decide it's Gateway, and if it is no, we embark on a bold new journey."

In the end, no decision was made. The council, two weeks from now, will hear all the proposals, including County Council member Steve Harmsen's wish to get out of the planetarium business altogether.


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com