by Max Brantley
The Aerospace Education Center is closing effective Jan. 1.
A news release explains how the loss of a key tenant, lack of public support, a decline in visitors and other financial reasons dictated the decision. The board expressed some hope that a plan could evolve to reopen it. A Pulaski Tech training facility adjacent to the center will remain open.
The Arkansas Aviation Historical Society, which operated the center, reported an operating deficit of more than $450,000 on its 2009 report to the IRS and a deficit of more than $500,000 the previous year. In 2009, the center itself had revenue of about $207,000 from ticket sales and the like against expenses of $454,000. The IMAX accounted for $183,000 of revenue in 2009, with $18,000 from the Episphere attrraction and almost $6,000 from the museum. The Form 990 shows a steady decline in total support over the years, from $1.4 million in 2005 to 2009's less than $500,000. The society has negligible cash assets. Its $9 million in assets are chiefly the nearly $6 million in buildings and equipment and $3 million in collections.
Dick Holbert, the head of Central Flying Service, was one of the museum's lead organizers and he also has loaned the Historical Society significant sums to cover operating expenses. That lending is now listed as a $2.56 million obligation on the society's 2009 tax form.
The center has nine employees, three working full-time, who'll continue to work in the shutdown process, according to Board member Dick Holbert.
The center, which opened in 1995, was dogged by controversy and struggles for continuing public support from the beginning. One early debate was a difference of opinion over the location and where the IMAX theater it houses would be located. With the benefit of hindsight, you could again wish the effort had landed in the River Market district, as once discussed, though its location by the Little Rock National Airport, if off the beaten path, had some logic. Also, IMAX eventually came to commercial theaters and the center struggled to compete in film offerings.
Another past dispute involved a former center director whose acrimonious parting led to a federal investigation. The investigation came to nothing, but it left a pall over the organization for several years.
The nonprofit Aerospace Education Center, established in 1995 to promote aeronautics and space through education, museum exhibits and community outreach, will close effective January 1, 2011, according to Jim Wohlleb, the Center’s board chairman. “While the AEC facility will cease operations for the time being, the Board will continue to explore the possibility of gaining public and private financial support, which could allow us to reopen or adapt the facility,” Wohlleb said.
“The stagnant economy has created challenges for museums and arts organizations all over the United States, and the Center’s revenues are not sufficient to sustain our operations,” Wohlleb said. “Now that the decision has been made to close, we can look back on the Center’s contributions to Arkansas. This facility has inspired people of all ages to reach for the stars.”
“Our vision and ambition for the Aerospace Education Center goes back more than two decades, when a group of aviation enthusiasts, educators and business leaders saw an opportunity to showcase the state’s remarkable aviation history and encourage our youth to pursue careers in science and technology,” he added.
The non-profit Arkansas Aviation Historical Society (AAHS) has owned and operated the Aerospace Education Center since it was established in 1995. While the AEC facility will close, the AAHS will continue its mission of sponsoring the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame and Aerospace Education Results (AER), a tutoring program approved by the State Department of Education to enrich students’ education in math and science, Wohlleb said.
The AAHS initially raised more than $6 million for the construction of a multi-use museum and educational facility. The Society’s ambition, proposed in 1989, was to include an aerospace magnet school, a library of aerospace materials, a museum and an IMAX movie theater. A school millage election was passed to support a bond issue to build the magnet school, but the Little Rock School District later decided not to build a school at the Center. In 1997, Pulaski Technical College joined with the Center to establish a workforce development center, which opened in 2000, offering industrial and maintenance training, as well as computer instruction. The adjacent technical college workforce development center will remain open.
“The public has gained much from this facility over the past 15 years,” Wohlleb said. “Well more than one million visitors have enjoyed the facilities and events. Hundreds of thousands of school students have been educated and inspired by the museum exhibits, IMAX feature films, and summer science academies. President Bill Clinton, astronauts, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and senators, congressmen and hundreds of other elected officials have participated in programs and events at the AEC.”
Clubs and community groups have held meetings, receptions and conferences at the Center. Industry groups and educators have attended business and professional development seminars, and others have held social events in AEC’s spaces overlooking the runways of Adams Field. The Aviation Historical Society was always proud that visitors from children to senior citizens looked at the exhibits with amazement.
“Our visioning was to create a place where aerospace, science and technology education could serve as sparks to encourage young people to pursue careers in this high technology area,” Wohlleb said. “Our vision has been borne out in many ways, as aerospace and defense manufacturing leads that sector of our state economy.”
Economic factors are behind the decision to close the Center, he said. Specifically, those factors are:
• Schools and other groups who have toured the Center in past years have experienced budget cuts that resulted in a decline in field trips and events at the Center.
• Visitations by tourists have declined with the economy.
• The revenue from the Center’s large-screen format has become unsustainable, primarily because the IMAX brand format has shifted to commercial theaters, and the cost of renting other films has become cost prohibitive.
• The Center does not receive public funding for its operations and program. It is the only major museum in Little Rock that receives no public financial support.
• The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) closed the Aerospace library branch, which further reduced revenues to the Center.
The AEC has a 99-year lease from the Little Rock Airport Commission on 25 acres of land for the Center. In the event of permanent closure, the ownership of the building will revert to the Airport Commission within12 months.
The library housed the Jay Miller Aviation Collection, which the Center purchased. The collection includes photos, magazines, aviation hardware, and about 6,000 books pertaining to aviation. It is one of the largest compilations of aviation materials apart from the Smithsonian Institution. CALS closed the branch last summer as a result of a taxpayer lawsuit that required CALS to reduce its operating budget.
Arkansas’ first IMAX theater, with its six-story screen and advanced sound system, was built at the Center at the time of its construction. The movie, “The Dream Is Alive,” was the debut film in 1995.
The Center’s museum includes an original World War I Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft, one of only seven in the world. Also on display is a 1918 Curtis “Jenny” and a 1928 Command-Aire manufactured in Little Rock. A model of the Wright Flier is another exhibit, and several historical cars are located as the Center, as well as a replica of the Apollo Command and Service Module.
In 2005, the Aerospace Education Center added a digital, domed theater and planetarium, named the Episphere. McDermott’s Workshop, a one-hour live lecture was offered to school groups to supplement the IMAX presentations. Summer Camps were also featured throughout the year.
The Aerospace Education Center was also the home of the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame was established in 1980 by the Aviation Historical Society to honor individuals who played a significant role in the history of aviation on the national or state scene. A total of 96 individuals have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The Board of Directors of the Center is comprised of 20 civic and business leaders and aviation enthusiasts, many of whom have been connected with the Center since its founding.
The Center’s website is www.aerospaced.org.
1979 Arkansas Aviation Historical Society was founded
1980 Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame was established
1989 Aviation Historical Society proposed a center for aerospace education
1995 June 10 — the Aerospace Education Center opened and its IMAX screen debuted
1995 The library component of the Aerospace Education Center was built, in partnership with the Central Arkansas Library System
1997 Pulaski Technical College joined the Center to plan classroom instruction
2000 Pulaski Technical College opened a branch of its school
2005 The EpiSphere, a digital, domed theater and planetarium, opened