‘Nothing left to really cut.’ Mecklenburg gives $10M to ballooning Discovery Place rebuild

Mecklenburg County commissioners voted Tuesday in favor of adding $10 million to a revamped Discovery Place Nature that’s seen costs balloon to new heights — but not without a heated debate.

Discovery Place, through a motion introduced by Commissioner Laura Meier, came into the meeting seeking $20 million in county funds to cover escalating construction costs. It was critical to hold the vote Tuesday, Meier said, because the current bids on the project expire Friday.

The county owns the property and facility on Sterling Road near Freedom Park and Little Sugar Creek Greenway, and Discovery Place has operated the museum since it opened in 1947. Commissioners previously approved spending $16 million on renovations at Discovery Place Nature in 2017. The commission also already approved a lease extension for the facility at its Nov. 21 meeting.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Elaine Powell called the $20 million ask “one of the most offensive items that has ever been before me.”

“How on Earth is the county on the hook for this?” she questioned, adding that she believed a county park and recreation project in a similar situation would not be able to get the additional funding approved.

County Manager Dena Diorio did not recommend commissioners approve the $20 million request, saying she didn’t know where the county would find the money and that it was hesitant to get involved with the project when the initial funding request came up years ago.

“I cannot in good conscience come to you and say with all the other things we have going on that you should invest another $20 million in this project,” she said.

Discovery Place Board of Trustees member Rich Campbell told commissioners that his team has been working behind the scenes for years to control costs of the project, which has ballooned from $35 million to $62.3 million since 2017. But the costs remain higher than expected despite redesigns and multiple bidding processes.

“We’ve trimmed all the fat, and we’ve cut a little bit into the muscle,” he said. “And there’s nothing left to really cut from the project.”

Not securing the $20 million in new funding from the county would create a major hurdle, Campbell said, because it’s difficult to secure financing and/or fundraise for a county-owned building. Discovery Place is already on the hook for $26.3 million for the project, according to Campbell’s presentation to the board.

“We talked to 12 banks,” he said of other funding options. “It won’t happen.”

Commissioner Pat Cotham said the last-minute nature of the request left her “head spinning.”

“I’m questioning a lot of what I’m hearing,” she said.

Meier, whose district includes the Discovery Place Nature site, introduced a substitute motion pledging up to $10 million in additional county funding for the project. That amount would allow Discovery Place to accept the project bids on the verge of expiring, she said.

Board Chairman George Dunlap encouraged his fellow commissioners to consider how much money the county already has sunk into the land before casting their votes.

“This will be a county building. We’re responsible for the building one way or the other,” he said. “And so to leave it undone … I don’t know if that is the right thing to do.”

Meier’s substitute measure was ultimately approved by a vote of 8-1, with Powell the lone “no” vote.

“I think this can be done, and it will be done,” Meier said.

Timeline of Discovery Place Nature project

Plans for significant renovations to Discovery Place Nature have been in the works for years.

Museum leaders said in 2015 they were “planning a sweeping expansion and renovation” that would take five years and cost $28 million, the Observer reported at the time. At that 2015 meeting, museum leaders told commissioners they could be asked to approve public money to cover design and construction costs but that the museum would turn to private donations for exhibits, laboratories and classrooms.

By 2017, commissioners approved spending $16 million on the project, to be used along with money from private partners and donations. And in 2019, Discovery Place Nature shut down “for at least two years” to make way for construction.

A plan for the site unveiled in 2022 called for the old 13,000-square-foot museum to be torn down “and replaced with a building nearly twice its size” on more than 13 acres of land.

That plan called for the new museum — planned and designed by Charleston-based Liollio Architecture and California-based Hood Design Studio — to include:

  • A nearly 26,000-square-foot environmental education center

  • A free public garden filled with native plants

  • A treetop canopy walk

  • A naturalist lab

  • An outdoor otter habitat

Mecklenburg commissioners elect 2024 leadership

Commissioners also unanimously approved a new vice chairman for the next year Tuesday, District 4 representative Mark Jerrell. Outgoing Vice Chairwoman Powell, who represents District 1, declined to be nominated for another term in the post and nominated Jerrell.

“I have served five years (as vice chair), and it has been an immense honor,” she said, adding it was a “pleasure to nominate” Jerrell.

“I am a better leader because of you,” she said to her successor in her nomination speech.

Jerrell said he accepted “with the greatest amount of humility.”

“We can make this community the best community in this whole country,” he said.

Dunlap, who represents District 3, was unanimously appointed to another term as chair. He was nominated by District 2 Commissioner Vilma Leake.

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