The World of Wonders Science Museum’s expansion plans broke new ground after the city council voted unanimously to draft a letter of support for the project.
The council authorized City Manager Steve Schwabauer to draft a non-binding letter of intent to relay the support of city officials and residents at a city council meeting on Wednesday. The letter will allow the museum to seek out angel investors.
“When you started 10 years ago, I did not think the museum would get this big, but I am glad you proved me wrong,” Councilman Alan Nakanishi said.
The WOW Museum’s board of directors has been meeting with angel investors to generate donations to help fund the $19 million project. The expansion would add 30,000 square feet of hands-on exhibit space, classrooms, workshops, a cafe and a planetarium.
The World of Wonders has also asked the city to close Sacramento Street between Pine and Elm streets as part of the expansion project. The closure would provide an assembly area for arriving and departing buses and a safe, enclosed plaza for visitors of the museum.
The plaza would include a courtyard featuring an outdoor teaching amphitheater, a custom carousel, and outdoor science and technology exhibits, with a defined passageway between the museum’s buildings.
The WOW board requested that the city abandon the street right-of-way on Sacramento Street between Elm and Pine — not including the intersections — and construct a parking area.
The request would require the city to use public funds for the street fixes needed for the museum’s project.
“The ask for public funds is a stickler for me. We need to set a precedent on how we yield the streets,” Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said.
Her sentiment was echoed by Councilmen Bob Johnson and Doug Kuehne, who supported Mounce’s request that WOW purchase the section of Sacramento Street rather than have the city abandon it.
“St. Anne’s Church purchased the streetway to create its courtyard, and I don’t know how many thousands of dollars it cost them to that, but it would not be fair to charge one group and not the other,” Mounce said.
In addition to asking for the roadway, the museum board asked the city to establish a place for buses to park for visitor access.
“We are currently looking at using a parking lot from one of the lots at the Grape Bowl, and staff is exploring the use of the former indoor sports center site as well as the city bus lot, which is largely empty during museum hours,” Schwabauer said.
The request to create a designated bus loading and unloading area would require a joint effort on behalf of the city and the Federal Transit Administration.
“After having spent many hours that I will never get back with FTA, I would prefer to utilize the space we have than pursue that route,” Schwabauer said. “The walk from the Grape Bowl parking lot to the entrance of the museum and the train station would not be that great of a distance.”
Schools have already begun to use the train station, thanks to a partnership between the World of Wonders and Amtrack. The WOW on Wheels program launched in December, according to museum board member John Della Monica.
WOW on Wheels is designed to bring students in rural counties such as Merced to Lodi, giving them a chance to visit the museum and experience the railway system.
“It was brilliant of you guys to use the train as a way to reach out to communities that are lacking public outreach, and the opportunity to touch their lives is phenomenal,” Johnson said.
The World of Wonders Museum has opened its doors to 80,000 people in the past year, according to museum president Sally Snyde. In recent years, the museum has had to refuse student field trips to the museum due to limited space, she added.
“We have only reached 20 percent of the students in our own county. With the expansion we have the opportunity to reach a million children locally,” Snyde said.
She offered the museum’s recent anniversary celebration as an example.
“We just came up on our 10-year anniversary, and we celebrated this milestone with a birthday party and we offered free admission to guests,” Snyde said.
The museum saw more than 1,177 people from Pittsburgh, Sacramento and throughout the San Joaquin County come through its doors on March 3, the day of the event.