Infinity Science Center is coming up on its second anniversary in April and the emphasis now is on attracting more people by adding exhibits and making the science center more visible, literally. NASA has cleared some trees between the state Welcome Center and Infinity so that I-10 travelers get a better view of the center.
Infinity, the official NASA visitor center for the nearby Stennis Space Center, drew around 60,000 people in its first year. That’s up from the 35,000 to 40,000 visitors to the old visitor center on the Stennis site but nowhere near the 260,000 to 360,000 visitors predicted by consultants before Infinity opened.
John Wilson, Infinity’s executive director, said the original estimate of visitor attendance was “greatly exaggerated and it threw off the business model.” But new attractions take time to get noticed, he said, and lately Infinity is getting more word-of-mouth buzz. “It does take a while,” he said. His goal is 80,000 visitors this calendar year.
Paul Foerman of NASA public affairs at Stennis, said, “We are seeing considerably more visitors than we did when it was located on site. We’d like more, of course.”
Foerman said the economy is “a big driver” in visitor counts. “All visitor attractions across the country are down.” At two years old, he said, “We are still fairly new, but just getting the word out that we exist is a big challenge.”
Business and community leaders put the idea for Infinity into motion more than 10 years ago and formed a non-profit foundation to raise money to build it in Hancock County. The targeted amount was $30 million and so far more than $20 million has been raised.
The 72,000-square-foot center has 30,000 square feet of gallery space and is staffed by 10 employees. NASA supplies eight or nine tour guides and has provided the bulk of exhibits.
The non-profit 501(c)(3) center is located on NASA land and is funded partly by donations, grants and ticket sales. The center also receives $44 of the $50 fee from the sale of New Orleans Saints car tags. “It’s an incredible deal,” said Wilson. Infinity has received as much as $18,000 a month from the Saints tags. It also receives a portion of money from the cafe and gift shop. This year it has a budget of around $850,000.
Wilson said Infinity has the same worries as any small business. “The good news is for an operation this size we have very little debt,” he said. The goal is to retire the debt soon and build up rainy day funds.
Wilson said he has two goals for the center including “being part of raising several generations of people who know enough about science to care about it, and maybe a slight percent of those will become scientists. The second is raising science literacy among the general public.”
A third goal is to pull more visitors off busy Interstate 10.
NASA recently lent a helping hand with landscaping. Foerman said, “We have thinned some trees between the welcome center and Infinity so we’re seeing a lot more people saying they just drove by and saw it and decided to stop. So we’re starting to get more of that I-10 traffic stopping.” He is hopeful that travelers who don’t stop the first time will visit on their return trip.
Part of Wilson’s strategy to draw more visitors involves “finding the right groups to focus our precious ad dollars on,” he said. He also is working to enhance the visitor experience, starting with how visitors are greeted at the door.
“Infinity is closely associated with Stennis because it is our official visitors center and so NASA has a keen interest in the success of the science center,” Foerman said. “And we have a mission to inspire the next generation of explorers, so we want nothing but the best for Infinity.”
Wilson said about 2,000 students are scheduled to visit Infinity during February, and emails are being sent to schools in the surrounding area to get more students in for spring field trips.
Infinity generally gets good reviews from visitors but there have been some negative comments on social media sites about a shortage of interactive exhibits. Wilson said the complaint is well founded. “In some ways we overpromised and underdelivered,” he said. “The good news is, we are working to put in more interactive exhibits.”