The Sheila M. Clark Planetarium is finding that life after the honeymoon, if somewhat more routine, is pretty good.

The planetarium had its grand opening in April 2003. People were talking about the sparkling new facility that replaced the moribund Hansen Planetarium on State Street. They came in droves to see the cutting-edge star theater, the IMAX theater, the exhibits and the store.

Consider that in three months the Clark Planetarium did more business than the Hansen Planetarium usually did in a year. In nine months, the new facility had taken in $2.3 million, compared with peak annual revenues of $640,000 at Hansen.

Located in Salt Lake's Gateway shopping center, it also bumped up business in surrounding stores.

"From an economic development standpoint, it's been huge," Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman said at the time. "It's been out of sight — far better than I thought it would be."

Things have settled down somewhat since then. Business remains steady, and with 18 months of experience behind them, the planetarium's overseers are tweaking things here and there: adjusting ticket prices, experimenting with different shows, tinkering with operations.

"We've had a year of trial, and we're seeing how the community is responding," Workman said. "This next year is going to be a different kind of a year."

The planetarium is hiring a development director — a fund-raiser to beat the bushes for donations. It didn't do so before now because "it took everything we had to just open the building," planetarium director Seth Jarvis said.

Hansen had 30 employees when it closed. Clark opened with 20.

When the planetarium opened, the Salt Lake County Council mandated that it be financially self-sufficient by 2007 — an exceedingly difficult task. There's a reason planetariums are partially or fully publicly funded institutions — their mission of education can be difficult to reconcile with profitability. If you're bringing thousands of sixth-grade students in to go to star shows free of charge, you're not making much money.

Right now the planetarium covers about half of its $5 million annual budget, including a $1.5 million bond payment for the cost of the building.

"It was a brave thing for the council to do," Jarvis said. "It's something that I think about every day. (But) if any planetarium in the country can become self-sufficient, it would be this planetarium."

Jarvis said he knows of no planetarium that functions wholly without public assistance.

That goal has required some changes in usual operating procedure — compromise, perhaps, of the planetarium's core mission. For example, Jarvis was very reluctant to bring in the NASCAR 3D IMAX movie, which has little to do with science and nothing to do with astronomy. But indications were that it would bring in a lot of spectators, so he finally agreed.

"I went into that kicking and screaming," he said.

In addition, the planetarium currently develops its own star shows on the too-cool-for-words Digistar 3 projection system. Clark was the first planetarium in the world to feature a "pitless" star theater — one without the bulky console in the middle controlling the action. It sells some of those shows to other planetariums; for example, it recently sold its "Destination: Saturn" show to Athens for $25,000.

Workman said that arrangement might be worked over to increase profitability — for example, charging other planetariums more for shows.

However it's done, profitability "is very attainable," she said. "It's an absolute goal we should always have."

Go to www.clarkplanetarium.org for information on pricing and schedules.


E-mail: aedwards@desnews.com