LOCAL COLOR/A star-crossed vision
A recent venture between the Waukesha County, Wis., school district and the county’s Retzer Nature Center was seemingly written in the stars. After 27 years, the old school district administration building that housed the Charles Z. Horowitz Planetarium needed renovations to address space constraints and code issues. At the same time, county park officials wanted to expand the nature center, a project that had been considered since the late 1990s. In June 2004, county and school officials united on a nearly $1.3 million project to rebuild the old planetarium on the grounds of the Retzer Nature Center, creating a one-stop learning facility for children and adults.
The old 38-seat planetarium had a projector that cast 800 stars onto a 20-foot diameter dome. Following a visit to the planetarium, county Parks and Land Use Director Dale Shaver discovered the constraints of the old building. “I remember coming out very impressed with what they had done with the resources that they had [and] the curriculum that they were delivering,” he says. “But, I could see that they had challenges with space.”
Shaver saw an opportunity to use some of the additional space planned for a $900,000 nature center expansion as a new planetarium. Eventually joining in discussions with other county and school district officials, the two local government entities decided to relocate the nearly three-decades-old planetarium to the county nature center, combining the county school district and county facility. “[It] just made a lot of sense,” Shaver says. “We’ve been hoping to create a division [where] our nature center [would be] the clearinghouse for natural resource and environmental-related education, and the planetarium just fit in.”
Officials envisioned the new facility as a “cross-marketing” tool, enabling visitors to have a complete environmental learning experience. By creating the one-stop learning facility, visitors, especially school children, could take advantage of the planetarium and the nature center in a single day, rather than several. “We wanted to basically create one vision,” says county park system manager Jim Kavemeier. “[The] planetarium had its own section of the building, and the learning center had another. But, we didn’t want it to look like two separate functions. When [visitors come they] realize that they’re coming to the Retzer Nature Center but within Retzer Nature Center [is] the Horowitz Planetarium.”
Now, housed among 420 acres of trees and nature trails, the new planetarium features a 40-foot diameter dome, 90 theater-style seats, a star machine that projects 3,000 stars and an enhanced video system for interactive programs. While the planetarium cost nearly $400,000, the county school district contributed $800,000 for furnishings and seating. Project officials also received funding from groups who support the nature center and planetarium.
Since its May 2005 opening, attendance at the planetarium has doubled, and revenues have nearly quadrupled, according to planetarium director David DeRemer. Also, officials are seeing new groups visiting the planetarium. The new facility has hosted birthday parties and other special events, even generating interest in a wedding this summer. But, overall the new facility has garnered a renewed interest in the environmental education offered by both the planetarium and the nature center. “It’s exactly the reaction we were looking for,” Shaver says. “The fact that [the planetarium is] doubling their attendance already tells you that’s exactly what it was envisioned to do.”