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COSI soars 5 years after opening

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    Adam Muheisen, a fifth grader from Barnes Elementary School in Flat Rock, Mich., rides the high-wire bike at COSI.

  • COSI-soars-5-years-after-opening

    Jacob Rider ponders his next move.

Jacob Rider is quick to admit he doesn't like science: it's boring and “really gross.”

But the second grader has a different take of the subject when he's on COSI Toledo's rock wall. He likes figuring out which shapes of “rocks” he can best use to pull, step, and slide his way from one end of the wall to another.

“I like this kind of science,” he said.

Five years after it replaced the failed Portside, COSI's hands-on science learning experience is impressing more than Jacob. The center, at Summit and Adams streets along the Maumee River, is gaining a national reputation among peers in the Association of Science-Technology Centers in Washington

“You have a real gem there,” said association executive director Bonnie VanDorn.


Adam Muheisen, a fifth grader from Barnes Elementary School in Flat Rock, Mich., rides the high-wire bike at COSI.


At first glance, COSI's figures may not look stellar. Its attendance has slid from past years, and in two of five years it has lost money.

But, industry experts say that's common for new museums, and overall the science museum has turned a profit. More impressive is that COSI has done so without the taxpayers subsidies needed by most science centers. In fact, compared to industry averages, COSI is busier than its peers yet costs less to run.

And, despite existing in the nation's 86th largest metro area, COSI Toledo's amenities rank it among the top 40 science centers in the nation.

As the center with the distinguished blue roof celebrates its five-year anniversary in 2002, COSI backers point to the center as a true success story.

In physical terms, they say, it rehabilitated an empty building that housed birds and the homeless.

In psychological terms, it replaced a civic embarrassment with a viable enterprise.

And in economic-development terms, it's a popular place to learn science, a key for a community playing catch-up to an evolving economy that demands more science-educated workers.

“COSI has been an unqualified success,” said former COSI board chairman James Hoffman, president of KeyBank in Toledo.

Backers like businessman Robert Savage say it's earned a place next to community institutions like the Toledo Museum of Art and the Toledo Zoo.

“You never hear people talk about the `historic Portside,'” the COSI board member quipped.

Portside opened in 1984 amid a wave of downtown retail centers across the country that aimed to revitalize the urban cores. Then-Mayor Donna Owens pointed to it as proof downtown Toledo “is just not beating, but pounding.”

But the drumbeat of shoppers waned, and Portside closed its doors in September, 1990.

With the city mired in recession, leaders held often-testy public hearings over the building's fate.

“God, we'd get beat up at those meetings,” recalled then-Mayor John McHugh. “People had said it failed. They didn't want to spend any money on it.”

The first choice was an entertainment district, but it would have needed public money to stay afloat. Then the idea emerged of a hands-on science center similar to Columbus' popular COSI.

The idea wasn't universally loved. Opponents questioned how a science center could financially survive there if Portside couldn't.

Still, the committee persuaded the state to spend $10 million renovating the building if local leaders could raise the rest. Local leaders then raised $9 million, providing extra cushion for a $17 million facility that opened in March, 1997.

Some critics of COSI remain, such as attorney Phil Joelson, who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to have it built somewhere else. He said he still believes Portside could have reopened with cheaper rents and COSI built somewhere else.

COSI opponent Betty Mauk still wishes the city would demolish COSI for a better riverfront view.

But their opinions now must compete with those from the likes of 8-year-old Mitch Fisher.

“It is so fun,” the Holgate Elementary student said during a break from studying the travel of balls through a 120-square-foot maze at COSI's main entrance.

Poll the schoolchildren visiting COSI, and about half of them admit they don't like science class. But they like COSI, including Adam Muheisen, a fifth-grader from Flat Rock, Mich.

“COSI's great,” he said after riding the popular high-wire bike over COSI's balcony.

Granted, life in COSI isn't perfect. Administrators are battling to raise attendance while making the most of COSI's space and money.

For the fiscal year that ended in June, 2001, attendance had dropped 5 percent from the previous year. And, with the Sept. 11 tragedy and recession cutting into school trips, administrators expect attendance figures to drop this fiscal year as well.

However such fluctuations are common, particularly for new centers, Ms. VanDorn said. Most science centers open to big crowds and then see attendance drop. Even for established science centers, the numbers often fluctuate up to 10 percent between years.

Even with lower attendance last year, COSI turned a profit and has banked nearly $2 million.

COSI officials hope to boost the figures with the summer exhibit Sue, a full-sized replica of the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex discovered. The exhibit, which runs June 10 to Sept. 3, is one of only two Sues touring the country.

But COSI president Bill Booth doesn't count success strictly by the numbers. He points to the draw that COSI has from beyond northwest Ohio - even routinely luring families from Detroit's northern suburbs.

Then there's the increased interaction with local science teachers, including a distance-learning concept where COSI links scientists around the country to students classrooms.

“We've expanded COSI from this facility to a community-wide experience,” Mr. Booth said.

Industry peers have kept tabs.

Goery Delacote, who heads San Francisco's Exploratorium, said administrators there chose COSI Toledo over about 10 other museums that wanted a slot in itspartners program. They chose Toledo, in part, to learn about COSI's experience with distance learning.

“We love the place because they have a lot of energy,” Dr. Delacote said. “We like to work with places with ambition, some vision of what needs to be in education, and a good sense of managerial quality, which is not always the case in science.”

With the partnership, COSI is among only a dozen museums worldwide that receive travelling Exploratorium exhibits.

COSI backers are mulling the next steps for the center. Mr. Booth said COSI could expand the building, add a boat for aquatic field trips on the Maumee River, even add a large theater.

Mr. Booth said he's working on a master plan, and he and other backers don't rule out asking for public dollars to help expansions.

He said he'll ultimately measure COSI's success on how it helps transform science education in the community.

“In 10, 20, or 30 years from now,” he said, “when you ask people who are Nobel Prize-winning scientists in this area, `How did you get so interested in science?' They'll say, `COSI.'”

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