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Children's Museum kicks off fund-raising

| Friday, April 5, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

After nearly having an $18.5 million expansion project thrown off course by a group of astronomy buffs, the Pittsburgh Children's Museum was able to finally kick off a capital fund-raising campaign Thursday.

"I think we have champagne here that we can all celebrate with," quipped museum executive director Jane Werner. "I know, after the week I've had, I could use a glass."

City Council nearly wavered on approving a lease to allow the museum to expand into the Buhl Planetarium, which has been closed to the public since 1994. A small but vocal group of Buhl supporters have objected to the museum's plans, saying the expansion will render the Zeiss II star projector and other historic equipment useless. The astronomy buffs want to keep the Zeiss II in the Buhl.

Council tentatively approved the 29-year lease for the museum Wednesday. A final vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

Plans call for connecting the museum in the historic Allegheny Post Office to the Buhl Planetarium with a three-story, glass enclosure known as the Nightlight Building. The 80,000 square-foot expansion will include 30,000 square feet of incubator office space for start-up companies that offer children's services.

The museum handles 110,000 visitors annually in its 20,000-square-foot facility.

Werner said she anticipates a June 2003 opening of the expanded museum.

"We see this as an incredible opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to providing the region's children and families with quality, hands-on exhibits and educational programs," Werner said. "It is a privilege to have the opportunity to renovate the Buhl and return the building to use as an educational resource for children and families in the region."

The expansion will house several new exhibits, including a replica of the set from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and exhibits based on the museum's "Play With Real Stuff" theme. Those exhibits, Werner said, will give children hands-on learning opportunities.

The museum set a goal of raising $25 million, which includes $6.5 million for the museum's endowment. The museum already has raised $12.9 million from foundations, board members and anonymous donors and hopes to secure $7 million in state funding to meet the goal.

Plans call for moving the astronomy equipment to the Carnegie Science Center as part of that museum's expansion. In recent weeks museum officials threatened to walk away from the expansion, saying they would be unable to properly care for the equipment. City Council's approval of the lease stipulates that the museum cannot remove any of the equipment until June.

Opponents say the planetarium's Zeiss Planetarium Projector and its Siderostat Telescope were custom built for the Buhl and will be useless in any other building.

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