The Leonardo has sorely tested patience at City Hall. So much so that Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker has instructed his staff to explore other options for the former city library building at 209 E. 500 South.
While city officials insist the proposed arts, culture and science center remains an option for the site, a mayor directing his staff to consider other options hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of the proposal, which has been more than five years in the making.
The City Council needs to impose a strict deadline for The Leonardo. If the center has not reached its fundraising requirements as promised, the City Council needs to pull the plug on this project. The city has not yet issued bonds for the $10.2 million that voters approved for the project in 2003, provided that sum was matched by private fundraising.
The Deseret News editorial board has long questioned the viability of The Leonardo. In 2003, when Salt Lake voters were asked if the city should bond for $10.2 million toward construction of the interactive science and art center, we said "No." There were six projects on the ballot at the time. We felt The Leonardo was the least deserving of public support. Salt Lake voters, however, supported the bond.
But they did so with the understanding that Leonardo officials would comply with their fundraising obligations. It's been five years. Directors say they have secured the funding. It is unclear, aside from more fundraising and admission fees, how The Leonardo would support an estimated $3.3 million operating budget. The recent financial difficulties of the Discovery Gateway children's museum are instructive. The children's museum is an established entity, yet it has been challenged by the sluggish economy and failed to secure a sponsor for a traveling exhibit.
Meanwhile, a major exhibition, Body Worlds 3, is scheduled to open Sept. 19 for a four-month run at the former city library. Some $85,000 has been spent on building upgrades to accommodate the controversial Gunther von Hagens exhibit, which features human bodies that have been preserved with plastics. This exhibit could be a boon for The Leonardo's fundraising efforts.
The buzz over this event should not deter the City Council from its responsibility to determine whether The Leonardo is financially viable long-term. As City Council chairwoman Jill Remington Love reminded Leonardo officials, "We want to be good partners. But we can't be left running the museum."