The Future of Flight center at Paine Field in Everett, the starting point for the Boeing jet assembly plant tour and the county’s largest tourist attraction, faces uncertainty as Boeing and the county seek to revamp the visitor experience.

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Entering the main gallery at the Future of Flight aviation center at Snohomish County’s Paine Field, visitors invariably stop to marvel at and touch the imposing 33-foot-high tail of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. In the coming months, that exhibit is likely to be removed — and perhaps cut into tiny pieces.

Dramatic changes at this public facility, the starting point for Boeing’s jet-assembly-plant tour, are being hammered out behind closed doors by Boeing and Snohomish County officials.

The contract for the nonprofit currently running the Everett facility, the Institute of Flight, ends June 13, and so will the jobs of its 30-plus employees.

As that deadline looms, the only certainty is that the Boeing tour will continue. With more than 320,000 visitors last year, that’s the county’s largest tourist attraction.

The rest of the operation at the $24 million, publicly funded facility is up for grabs.

It’s still unclear who will take over the Future of Flight center, what will happen to the jobs and what new direction for the facility is envisaged by Boeing and the county.

The venue includes a large exhibition gallery, a theater for video presentations, a rooftop deck with sweeping views of all the airplane action on the Paine Field runways, a Boeing merchandise store, a gift shop and a cafe.

Arif Ghouse, director of Snohomish County Airport at Paine Field, which owns the facility, said the peripheral activities around the Boeing tour are underwhelming.

“People who come here are absolutely blown away by the Boeing tour,” he said. The rest of the building, not so much. We want to give visitors an experience that can be a lot better.”

Boeing, which leases 20 percent of the building for its assembly-plant tour, is also eager to upgrade the facility and is discussing taking a larger role.

“We are open to any ideas that will make the visitor experience bigger and better,” said company spokesman Paul Bergman. “We’re open to increasing our presence there.”

Open options

The Future of Flight facility was completed in 2005, funded through a public facilities district (PFD) by a county sales and use tax. The PFD also allocated $7 million to run the facility over a 25-year period.

The county specified that the venue would “provide cultural exhibits and space for conferences, meetings, special events to the county as well as to the wider regional community.”

In addition to using the building as the entry for its factory tour, Boeing often rents the expansive gallery or the rooftop “Strato Deck” for private VIP celebrations of airplane deliveries to important airline customers.

But those spaces are also available for the public to rent.

“We do educational events, weddings, high-school graduations,” said Jeff Van Dyck, interim executive director of the Institute of Flight. “Microsoft had 2,000 people here for an event.”

The institute, with an annual budget of about $3.8 million, runs summer camps and educational evenings for kids. It also markets and sells tickets for the Boeing tour.

Last year, 175,000 people visited the facility in addition to those who took the Boeing tour, for a total of about half a million visitors.

Yet in June, the county gave the institute a year’s notice that it would lose the contract to run the facility. The county signed a letter of intent with the lavish and well-funded Museum of Flight in Seattle to explore the option of its taking over.

That plan fell through in January, when the Museum of Flight backed out, stating that “now was not the right time.”

Ghouse said the airport is in talks with several partners, including the institute and Boeing. Although the Museum of Flight won’t run the facility, it may play “some kind of role,” he said.

Van Dyck, who replaced the institute’s previous director in February, said that he and his staff have made a pitch to retain the contract, emphasizing new educational projects. He said they’ve asked for 18 months to revamp the center.

Clearly, Boeing is likely to drive the ultimate outcome.

“Boeing is a huge player,” said Ghouse. “They have a vested interest.”

Still, he said, there’s no intention to let Boeing take over the facility for its own private use.

“We’re not looking to sell,” said Ghouse. “Our goal is to have a public-access facility and for us to retain ownership.”

Ghouse said that he could not reveal details of the talks with the various parties. But once a decision is made and a new operator is identified, then jobs will be advertised and the current employees at the institute will be free to apply for them.

Secretive process

A current institute employee, who for job protection asked for anonymity, criticized the secretiveness of the process.

“Dozens of people have their jobs on the line and the county is not telling anyone,” this person said. “Nothing is decided in public.”

“This is public money,” the person added. “Is this going to play out in the public interest or in private interest?”

Aside from the jobs at stake, it’s also unclear what changes are likely in the venue itself.

Ghouse said the dissatisfaction with the current facility centers on the exhibit gallery. It currently is home to various aviation artifacts including the 747 tail, an early all-composite turboprop airplane called the Beechcraft Starship hanging from the ceiling, two large jet engines and various Boeing fuselage sections, as well as smaller exhibits.

“We’d like to see it incorporate more future-leaning exhibits to capture the imaginations of youngsters,” Ghouse said. “And we want more rotation of the exhibits to keep people coming back.”

Van Dyck said he’s been told that many of the current exhibits in the main gallery will have to be taken out, though he’s awaiting a definitive list.

One structure that’s expected to go is the 747 tail, which the institute purchased from an airplane bone yard.

The giant tail was set in place before the gallery’s overhead air conditioning and lighting systems were installed — systems that now may make it difficult or impossible to remove the tail without cutting it into pieces, Van Dyck said.

One option he’s considering is chopping the tail into small squares and selling those to aviation geeks to raise money for the nonprofit’s future.