Attendance lighter than expected at CBC planetarium

Kristy Henscheid said there are some shows at Columbia Basin College's Bechtel National Planetarium that are packed to the gills.

For others, just a few people are scattered around the facility's 100-seat theater.

"They get to have the whole place to themselves," said Henscheid, who was appointed the planetarium's director in early May.

While revenue from planetarium shows is at an acceptable level, college officials said overall attendance is lighter than expected. Just under 11,000 people have visited the facility since it opened in early December.

"Even a lot of (CBC) students don't realize it's here -- and they're on campus all the time," Henscheid said.

College officials said they're looking at more ways to promote the facility but also are hoping word of mouth will continue to build after student field trips, especially from the region's grade schools, begin again this fall.

It cost about $1.3 million to convert CBC's D Building on the western edge of the Pasco campus into the planetarium.

Along with some state money, Hanford contractor Bechtel National and The Community Enrichment Foundation contributed $200,000 to the project and the CBC Foundation gave $250,000.

The theater uses a Spitz XD high-definition projection system, considered one of the best available, to project onto a 36-foot diameter dome.

It is the largest planetarium in the state based on the ratio of seating to screen space. The building also has three classrooms.

Revenue from planetarium admissions stands at about $23,000. Brett Riley, a CBC administrator who oversaw the planetarium for the first few months, said that is "right within the ballpark of the business plan" and sustainable.

But the type of audience attendance just isn't what was hoped for. College officials said they wanted to see a lot of young students returning with their families after visiting with their class.

They have seen some of that happening, but it needs to grow in the coming school years, Henscheid said.

So far, the most popular shows are "The Other Side of Infinity: Black Holes" and "Stars of the Pharoahs".

Riley said the planetarium is even drawing in older folks, nostalgic for their childhood fascination with space, the Apollo moon program and the different planetariums they visited years ago.

"They're not disappointed," Henscheid said.

Henscheid said she'd like to see at least 80 more people a week visiting the planetarium.

She said it's clear that more needs to be done to reach people looking for something to do on hot summer days.