Elmo nearly killed the children's museum.

Now the Discovery Gateway is trying to bounce back, with a lean budget free of traveling exhibits like "Sesame Street Presents: The Body."

Weary donors and nonexistent sponsors sunk the Discovery Gateway into a $609,000 hole this year. That marks two years in a row of the museum operating in the red, a reality leaving the museum in breach of contract with Salt Lake County.

Now the county can either hire another operator to run the facility, run it in-house, close it or leave things be.

On Tuesday, the Salt Lake County Council opted for the latter.

The council approved the museum's budget and told officials to check in with the county quarterly to make sure the museum's financial situation is on the up and up.

The museum is trying to stay afloat by cutting its expenses by 18 percent, down to $3.2 million a year. That means bye-bye to traveling exhibits, said Victoria Bernier, the museum's chief financial officer.

Bernier said the museum took an unexpected financial hit last year when no companies signed on to sponsor "Sesame Street Presents: The Body."

"They just didn't love Elmo as much as it cost" to bring the exhibit here, Bernier said.

Private donations have lagged since the museum was built. Children's museum officials have said they've just asked too much from donors.

Discovery Gateway officials had to beg and plead for $7.5 million to receive a county matching bond of $15 million just to build the museum. But now that it's built, nobody wants to chip in for operations.

Some promised donations have failed to materialize, as well, including a $650,000 pledge from Fred Lampropolous, owner of Merit Medical and a major player in the Republican Party.

Now the museum is trying to turn things around.

And it seems like it's working.

In March, museum officials hired development director Leslie Reberg to ramp up fundraising efforts. Her work is paying off. In the fourth quarter of the museum's last fiscal year, private donations totaled $226,000. The previous three quarters combined only netted $48,000 in private donations.

The County Council has been keeping close tabs on the museum's progress, with monthly reports to one of the council's subcommittees. Now that things are looking better, museum officials will only report quarterly.

"I've been impressed with the progress they've been making," County Councilman Jeff Allen said. "I am pleased with the cuts they have made. I think it shows they are starting to move forward."


E-mail: [email protected]