Friday, March 5–County Okays One-Time Subsidy For Discovery Center

SNOW HILL – The Discovery Center in Pocomoke City, opened this past year, needs extra funding to stay open through June, the Worcester County Commissioners heard Tuesday.

“The Discovery Center has not really gotten off to quite as good a step as they would like or have planned,” said county administrator Gerry Mason.

Without help, the museum would need to layoff all staff, except for a position to maintain the new aquarium, and close until enough funding is found to re-open, according to Discovery Center Executive Director Brian Garrett.

The commissioners agreed to provide the $48,000 requested to keep the Discovery Center open to the public through June.

That amount is less than the $60,000 originally thought to be needed. Garrett trimmed costs by $12,000 to reduce the museum’s request for interim funds.

Some cost savings have been ongoing with staff salaries frozen since 2008. Building improvements and repairs have been delayed, advertising put off and new exhibits held back. Volunteers provide much of the labor to operate the center as well, according to Garrett.

The Discovery Center will make a budget request this spring for fiscal year 2011 funding, but the amount of that request has not yet been determined.

The museum will continue to seek grants, hold fundraisers and raise money through donations and facility rentals.

An analysis of the Discovery Center’s finances by Worcester County staff shows the museum would have needed another 20,000 paying visitors to break even.

“A cursory review of the center financials would seem to indicate the center requires additional public assistance on an ongoing basis to remain open,” Finance Officer Harold Higgins wrote in a memo.

The county has invested millions in the Discovery Center already, Commissioner Bobby Cowger said, and the commissioners do not want to see the museum cease operations due to a need for $48,000.

“We certainly can’t close the door on that,” said Pocomoke representative Cowger. “Is there any way the commissioners could try to work with them?”

“We’ve done a lot of investment … the way things are, things are tight and we need to do something,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

The commissioners had a bit of a struggle with the request, Cowger said, and he did not want to set a precedent of providing interim funding to non-profits that could prompt other non-profits to ask for extra monetary assistance.

However, Cowger pointed out, the commissioners did the same thing for the Diakonia homeless shelter two years ago, providing interim funding in the spring to keep the shelter open until the end of the fiscal year.

A museum like the Discovery Center cannot be compared to the Diakonia homeless shelter, Commissioner Louise Gulyas said.

The commissioners raised no real objections to the bail out, coming to a consensus on helping the museum despite the tight current budget.

“There’s no question we’re going to take grief for this,” Cowger said.

“We’re going to help you out. I’m going to catch grief like the devil for it,” Shockley said to Garrett.

Something has to be changed at the Discover Center to ensure this does not happen again, Cowger said.

Shockley said that the commissioners should help the museum now, but that he could not say what would happen with funding for the center in the next fiscal year.

“There’s going to have to be changes made that’ll put your balance sheet in order one way or the other,” said Shockley.

Like any other business, the Discovery Center might need to be open for fewer days, Shockley said, or make other adjustments to decrease operating costs.

Commissioner Judy Boggs pointed out that the Discovery Center has only been open for half of a year.

“I think this is something we want to do,” said Boggs.

“It is a big asset to the town of Pocomoke, there’s no question,” said Cowger.

The Discovery Center is also an asset to Worcester County, Boggs said.

“It’s a beautiful place. We’re very proud of what you’ve done,” said Shockley.

The commissioners voted unanimously to assign $48,000 to the Discovery Center to keep the museum open for the rest of the fiscal year.

“After that, I don’t know,” said Shockley.

“You have a couple months of breathing room,” said County Commission President Bud Church.