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Kids' museum has growing pains

State's financial woes put expansion on hold

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Problems in obtaining at least $7 million from the state have forced the Pittsburgh Children's Museum to postpone ground breaking on a major project -- a glass addition that will connect its current building to the vacant Buhl Planetarium nearby.

Museum officials had hoped to begin construction in June on the ambitious expansion project, but so far the state, beset by its own financial problems, has failed to provide the $7 million to $10 million needed for the work.

On the positive side, museum Executive Director Jane Werner said yesterday, the museum has collected $17 million from local foundations and private individuals, and she's hoping to get good news from Harrisburg by late October.

The total cost of the museum's expansion project is about $25 million, which consists of $18.5 million for physical construction and $6.5 million for an endowment fund.

If the state provided as much as $10 million, she said, the museum could do even more new programming than initially planned.

Werner insisted she's not disappointed by the state's delay in coming up with the money.

"Life deals you lemons all the time, but you work around it," she said, then added, "We do need the state money to complete the entire project."

The Children's Museum is in the former Allegheny Post Office, a neoclassical structure built in the 1890s. Werner wants to connect it to the former Buhl building by constructing an illuminated, translucent glass addition that will form the new main entrance to the complex.

Scott Baker, a lobbyist with the law firm of Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling, is working to get state funds for the museum. He said the current economic downturn has made it difficult for the state to provide funds for capital projects in many cities.

Currently there is only about $100 million for such capital projects statewide, but the Legislature, which goes back into session in late September, may raise the borrowing limit by another $125 million, Baker said.

From that pool of $225 million or so, he's hoping the Legislature and Gov. Mark Schweiker will provide at least $7 million for the museum before Schweiker leaves office in early January.

Another step that the museum must take is to sign a lease with the city for use of the old Buhl building, which is city-owned.

Werner said she has been talking to the city Department of General Services and the city Law Department and hopes to sign a lease within a couple weeks.

City Council last spring agreed to lease the old planetarium to the Children's Museum, over the objections of protesters, led by former Buhl employee Glenn Walsh of Mt. Lebanon. They are unhappy that the Children's Museum, as part of its expansion, doesn't plan to reactivate the Buhl's old Zeiss star projector.

The projector is expected to be moved to the Carnegie Science Center and displayed as an artifact. Walsh insists that it's still capable of showing star clusters and formations, as it did during Buhl's heyday. The former Buhl Planetarium, which opened in 1939, has been empty since the Carnegie Science Center opened in 1991.

Despite the delay in getting state funding, Werner said other elements of the expansion work are going ahead, including extending East Ohio Street in front of the museum and adding a 60-space parking lot in a nearby courtyard.

"There are things we can do to prepare while we wait for the state funding," she said.

The new glass addition will span what now is a street that runs between the Children's Museum and the old Buhl, a street that is being vacated by the city.

The glass addition is expected to take about a year to complete once work begins, which Werner hopes will happen by the end of the year.

Foundations that have contributed to the project include the Hillman, the Buhl, the R.K. Mellon, the Grable, the Heinz Endowments and the Scaife Charitable Fund.

Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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