By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
A staple of space education and technology for nearly two decades in Peoria is looking for a new home.
Arizona Challenger Space Center’s last day open is Aug. 5. It will need to vacate the center, 21170 N. 83rd Ave., by Sept. 30. However, it will still be business as usual until the facility closes, and outreach programs will continue until the center is able to reopen for full programming and activities.
Executive Director Beverly Swayman said the ultimate need is to provide important education to kids, so all location options are a possibility, but the preference is to continue its established West Valley relationships and stay in the area.
“We are moving forward,” she said. “What has been most encouraging is the support and help that has come from the community.”
Total moving costs are estimated up to $750,000. Ms. Swayman said financial help will be needed to offset some of the costs. A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to help with the move.
“Of course, this move was not budgeted for, so we are grateful that individuals and corporations have all ready been offering assistance since they see the merit in our programs and place in the community,” she said.
The search for a new home started with Peoria, Glendale and Phoenix officials.
Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers has met with a Challenger board member and started a dialogue about the possibility of the facility in the downtown area. He said a couple buildings could be good candidates, but would not speak about specific locations.
City officials have been working toward revitalizing its aging downtown. Earlier this year, the Glendale City Council officially created the Centerline Entertainment District downtown, which allows certain alcohol establishments to locate closer to churches and schools if approved by the state liquor board. And most recently, the council approved a contract for a downtown manager to develop strategic priorities for the area.
Mr. Weiers said the space center would be a unique addition to Glendale that could bring a better quality of life to residents.
Challenger officials are welcome to visit the possible locations, but the devil is in the details, Mr. Weiers said.
“We would love to figure out a way to have them in downtown Glendale. Of course, we would have to take a look at a number of things. We would need to take into consideration traffic flow, buses for kids, and a number of other things. All those little details would need to be addressed,” he said. “There are a lot of different factors, and it has to be a successful business model. But if we are all working toward the same goal, I do see a great opportunity.”
Challenger Learning Center Of Arizona is listed as the owner of the building but the lien is held by Valley-based Knight Transportation, who secured the prospective buyer. The Maricopa County Assessor’s website lists the nearly 100,000-square-foot property’s full cash value at just under $5 million.
Ms. Swayman said there had been occasional discussions of possibly selling the building, but she learned of the need to vacate the facility in late May.
The assessor’s page has not listed the land as changing hands.
“I don’t have any specifics on the sale, but I always knew there was a possibility,” she said. “I don’t even know if it has been officially sold, but we have given a date to vacate.”
The move will include a wide variety of space and satellite exhibits and artifacts, ranging from a life-sized Iridium satellite model to a 10-foot Shuttle Atlantis display, as well as memorabilia and mission patches from past space missions. One difficulty in relocating the center involves the disassembling, transport and re-assembling of the Challenger Space Center’s Technology Flight Deck simulator, which could take up to six weeks. The program, with re-created sets of a NASA control room and space craft, gives students an opportunity at a two-hour simulated space mission that incorporates hands-on learning, problem-solving and applied STEM skills.
Costs to transport the simulator could reach as high as $750,000. If a new location isn’t found by the Sept. 30 deadline, items would have to be stored temporarily, she said.
“Because of the level of technology in the simulator and mission control areas and the types of cabling, it is not a simple move,” she said.
Director of Education John Vandewater sees a silver lining in the move, a place that will allow growth in programing and artifacts.
“On one hand, it will be sad to see all the history in this building go away,” Mr. Vandewater said. “Other hand, it is an opportunity to expand our footprint.”
The center is privately funded by individuals and major sponsors that include APS, SRP and Honeywell. In 2014, the organization’s liabilities outnumbered its assets by about $1 million, according to a 2014 tax document.
“What tax documents don’t show,” Ms. Swayman said, “is that the organization’s new management team developed a strategic plan to pay down old debt, increase revenues and develop new revenues streams that have begun to show results.”
Ms. Swayman said about 33,000 students visit the center annually and has seen an uptick in corporate team building events and family star gazing nights. She said high revenues are not gained from field trips and workshops because 70 percent of the schools that attend are Title 1 schools. Revenues were not high enough for many reasons but changes have been made to change that equation and position the center for success, she said.
“Part of the commitment of this team was to take a voluntary 40 percent pay cut over a period of months to ensure that this plan had time to work,” she said. “As a result, we had begun paying down old debt as well as maintaining the building and staying fully operational.”
The organization also talked about conducting a capital drive to add on to the building to increase their Smithsonian offerings to generate significant admission revenues.
“We had entertained this possibility because we were aware of the public’s interest in Smithsonian collections and it was a resource we had been unable to utilize in the past in any great measure,” she said. “We knew it would make a difference to the community to have this opportunity and would enrich the educational experiences we were able to offer.”
Mayor Cathy Carlat said in a statement that Peoria has been a proud supporter of the Challenger Space Center for nearly 20 years and was disheartened to hear it will be leaving the property near Sunrise Mountain High School.
The Peoria location is one of more than 40 Challenger centers globally.
“I have great respect for the Challenger Centers throughout our nation, who bring hands on interest to kids in STEM subjects,” Ms.Carlat said. “It’s unfortunate that this matter between the private property owner and the Challenger Space Center has interrupted their mission. It is my hope that they will endeavor to carry on as an exciting spaced-based learning environment.”
Arizona Challenger Space Center
The Arizona Challenger Space Center receives no government support from school districts, state, federal, NASA or Challenger National, and relies on donations from individuals and corporations. To help with the move individuals can donate at gofundme.com/we-are-relocating.
The facility will close in Peoria Aug. 5, but until then, it is business as usual.
Location: 21170 N. 83rd Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Closed on Sundays.