By Eric Pierce, September 17, 2019
Ben Dickow, left, and Assemblymember Cristina Garcia celebrate $5.8 million in funding recently approved for the Columbia Memorial Space Center.
DOWNEY – When Nader Moghaddam first arrived in Downey in January 2005, he wasn’t initially impressed. He had just been hired as CEO of Financial Partners Credit Union and Imperial Highway, with its six wide lanes and zero landscaping, resembled a landing strip. There were few good restaurant options. “My first day in Downey I had lunch at Norm’s,” he recently recalled. “It was the only place that I recognized.” A lot has changed in those 14 years. Retail centers and restaurants have opened at a torrent pace over the past decade, and Downey invested millions of dollars in the construction of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. It’s a nod to Downey’s cemented place in aerospace history and serves as the nation’s official memorial to the Space Shuttle Columbia, the orbiter lost in 2003, killing seven crew members. The space center is celebrating its 10th birthday this year and it just received a heck of a present: $5.8 million, courtesy of Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and California taxpayers. Of that money, $800,000 is earmarked for programming and the purchase of a 3D printer and audio/visual system. The remaining funds are allocated for an expansion of the 20,000 sq. ft. space center facility. Construction is not imminent, however. Officials plan to use the $5 million as seed money as part of a larger capital campaign. “The biggest question is how we leverage the $5 million to ultimately a different number,” said Moghaddam, who chairs the space center’s board of directors. “Because if you’re just doing a $5 million improvement, it will be very limited. And as much as it would make the center more expansive, it would not be an expansion that is awe-inspiring.” The board will spend the next 3-4 months evaluating their fundraising options. Possibilities include a mix of private donations and corporate sponsorships, grants, collaborations with local aerospace companies, and an appeal to former aerospace workers. “If we can get the type of funding we think we can get, two or three times what we got here, then we can do something really spectacular,” Moghaddam said. Ben Dickow, president of the space center, said the expansion could house the full-size space shuttle mock-up in the city’s possession. The wooden structure was built by North American Rockwell in 1972 and later gifted to Downey when Rockwell closed; the mock-up currently sits disassembled in a city maintenance yard. Dickow, however, would only commit to showcasing the mock-up under the right circumstances. “With the shuttle in particular, it has to be an experience. It can’t just be a display object,” he said. “We also have to be really conscious of the fact that the shuttle is going to turn 40 in a year or so; we don’t want to use this once in a career opportunity to just build a beautiful box around an old object. It has to push the space center forward; it has to use the shuttle as a springboard for the future.” Moghaddam agreed. “We still have that original wood structure, my question is, is there a way we can use that not as a static exhibit but possibly as a way kids can go inside,” he said. “If we can do that, it would take some resources, but it would be the kind of thing to foster attention.” IMG_7219.JPG Dickow said the $5.8 million commitment from legislators happened “almost literally overnight.” Garcia, a math teacher before going into politics, included the funding request as part of the governor’s 2019-20 spending plan. The budget was approved by the Assembly and later signed by Newsom. “The space center is a great treasure of the 58th district, and I look forward to seeing how much more they can expand their services to the district and the greater Los Angeles area,” Garcia said. “To Cristina Garcia’s credit, she really threw a Hail Mary on this one,” Moghaddam said. “She did the impossible and we’re eternally thankful for her.” Groundbreaking on any expansion is still at least a couple of years away, officials said. “There’s a lot of homework we still have to do,” Dickow acknowledged. The expansion, Moghaddam said, fits into the space center’s transition from a quaint city facility to a regional draw that has attracted nearly 100,000 visitors this year alone. “All the credit goes to the city council members who, more than 10 years ago, had the vision of creating a center that would celebrate the legacy of Downey in space exploration and avionics,” Moghaddam said. “Over time, since Ben’s been there, and I’ve had the pleasure of being involved peripherally and seeing it, Ben has taken the center out of its original footprint, which for a long time was just viewed as Downey. He has expanded it into a regional view, which brings more eyeballs to Downey.” Downey mayor Rick Rodriguez called the space center “a special place in Downey.” “It is a place where our youth learn about the history of space exploration, the present and the future,” he said. “It teaches and inspires the new generation of explorers, engineers, robotics and technicians that will continue to explore planet earth and the rest of the solar system.” News of the space center’s expansion coincides with a massive overhaul of Downey’s public infrastructure, including renovations to Downey parks, streets, fire stations, library and theater. The city is poised to look dramatically different in the next 12-18 months. “There is something really dynamic that is going on in this city -- it has its own unique energy,” Moghaddam said. “And I hope more of us can appreciate it. It’s exciting to be in Downey.” Eric Pierce September 17, 2019