By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii is looking to boldly go where the planetarium and cultural center has not gone before — into a future devoid of federal "earmarks."
Executive Director Ka'iu Kimura said last week that with earmarked federal funds expiring when this fiscal year ends in June, she's looking to other sources of revenues to keep the $28 million facility aloft.
'Imiloa has 35 employees, 28 of them full-time, and a budget of $3 million.
"We're looking at 50 percent dependence on our own earned revenue," she said. "That's admissions, retail, restaurant, memberships. We're beginning to license out our own content for our planetarium shows." 'Imiloa's original trilogy show "Awesome Light" has so far been licensed to planetariums in Germany, Greece and Macao, Kimura said. Their signature planetarium show "Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky" has been translated into Chinese, and the facility is looking to attract Chinese tour groups.
The center, which is part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, received about 27 percent of its funds, a little more than $800,000, from the state this year. The remainder comes from grants and donations.
The earmarks, which were championed by Hawaii's Congressional delegation, especially Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Mazie Hirono, have "fluctuated between $1.5 million and $2.5 million" a year, she said.
"We're still winding down on the last of our federal earmarks, but we're making up the difference in our own earned revenue," Kimura said. "We've just received a National Science Foundation award grant for the next three years, working with (University of California) Berkeley and the Indigenous Education Institute. ... We've also been getting a lot of private donor support."
Kimura said the earmarks "didn't really cover our basic operations."
"The earmarks covered more our (research and development), if you will, like the production of our shows. It didn't cover our base operational costs for 'Imiloa," she said. "That's where collaborations and partnerships like the one with the NSF proposal partnered with UC-Berkeley and the Indigenous Education Institute will be really key to the success of that. We're going to be going after more competitive funding for our R&D purposes."
The NSF grant is for $2.3 millon over three years, and the center has recently received $1.1 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the second grant from the private benefactor.
Admissions to the center have never achieved the stated goal of 100,000 visitors a year. In 2008, when the so-called "Great Recession" hit, the center received 9,458 visitors from out of state, while 25,952 kama'aina paid admission. The center had 15,891 paid memberships that year, and there were 11,424 students who came for educational visits.
Those numbers, especially for in-state visitors, sharply declined the following year and have remained at lower levels. In 2011, there were 8,771 out-of-state visitors and 18,825 kama'aina visited. Educational visits dropped to 7,296 and memberships totaled 11,185, although education and membership visits were up from 2010.
"As a business, we've been affected, but in terms of our attendance, we've been pretty stable," Kimura said. "We've actually seen an uptick in tourist-based visitorship to 'Imiloa."
In 2009, when out-of-state visitors to 'Imiloa bottomed out at 7,716.
A budget of $3.6 million didn't keep 'Imiloa from going $282,458 into the red in fiscal year 2007. At that time, with then-Executive Director Peter B. Giles at the helm, full-time positions were cut from 28 to 22, but the positions have since been "gradually restored," Kimura said.
The facility has not gone over budget since, according to income and expenditure figures supplied by 'Imiloa.
"As with any business, we're constantly looking for ways to streamline and become more efficient," she noted. "... I've developed a five-year plan to reach that 50 percent (goal) and for the past two years, we have been on track to achieving that in the next three remaining years."
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaii