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Science City takes important steps to woo more young visitors

October 2, 2015

Some Science City exhibits, such as this genetics game, were inspired by young people competing in the Battle of the Brains game. Shane Keyser [email protected]

The recent successes reeled off by Science City at Union Station show what persistence, planning and patience can accomplish when it comes to creating a big victory for Kansas City and its kids.

Oh, and don’t forget loads of cash, spent on the right priorities.

Recently, a worldwide organization called the Association of Science-Technology Centers gave Science City the Roy L. Shafer Leading Edge Award for Visitor Experience for 2015. Local officials proudly noted that past recipients include the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

In addition, an expansion in coming months will create a new outdoor plaza area and a better connection between Science City and the Gottlieb Planetarium.

Greg Graves, chairman and chief executive officer of Burns & McDonnell, has been a huge cheerleader for Science City’s comeback. His company sponsors the “Battle of the Brains,” a contest that seeks out great ideas from school students for new exhibits.

“By almost any measure, Science City has been one of the best investments in our firm’s history,” Graves said Thursday. “That’s because it’s been a win for our city through a better and more meaningful Union Station and it’s been a win for the kids of our town and their future in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”

Science City took a circuitous route to get to its newly lauded stage.

The science center opened with plenty of money and hope in late 1999, promoted as a key component in reviving Union Station after its $220 million renovation. Yet just three months later, Science City’s backers already were trying to explain why children and their parents were walking away disappointed with half-done exhibits. Officials failed to quickly fix the problems, kicking off what turned into years of bad publicity. Funds dried up and attendance was sporadic.

How times have changed.

Showing persistence, Union Station’s biggest supporters finally decided about five years ago to look for the best ways to improve Science City. The planning kicked in as ideas formed for opening new exhibits and wooing children back. The patience was crucial when it turned out all of the upgrades couldn’t be quickly accomplished.

Union Station President George Guastello pointed out in an interview that a strategic plan has focused on transforming the center into a first-class, thought-provoking place for young people to get excited about science and math — and to possibly pursue careers in those fields.

Attendance is encouraging. It grew from 128,000 in 2012 to 156,550 in 2014 — and is up another 34 percent in 2015 for the same period compared to last year. Planetarium attendance was 31,000 in 2012 but soared to 45,000 in 2014.

Science City’s resurgence as a cool place to visit coincides with its deserved international attention and promising expansion plans.