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Vintage St. Pete: The Science Center (Part Three)

Bill DeYoung

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Computer technology and cybersecurity training were among the course offerings at the Science Center in the second decade of the 21st century. Video screengrab.

Last of three parts

Like virtually all nonprofits, the Science Center took a bad financial hit during the recession of 2008 and 2009. Philanthropists, it appeared, had more important things to do with their money than give it to a 50-year-old specialized school.

Donors, board president William Schweikert said, had been pushing for the center to embrace a technology-focused curriculum, in keeping with the rapid changes in the world.

And the cookie jar was almost empty. The Science Center’s $700,000 endowment had been tapped one too many times and would soon be gone.

Schweikert announced a six-month closure, to begin in September 2009, so that the board and the Science Center’s staff of 22 could restructure things and come up with a more practical operating plan.

New director Joe Cuenco convinced the board to keep the center open. He promised to establish more corporate sponsorships (Progress Energy already had a major sponsorship stake) and bring in more STEM classes for middle and high-school age kids. He also proposed re-naming it the Center for Youth Innovation.

According to board member (and eventual president) Mike Mikurak, the writing was already on the wall. The Science Center’s shelf life was almost at an end.

“The large supporters that helped create the Science Center were no longer there,” he says. “The cost for providing educational services for elementary and middle school students continued to go up while the school system was, in essence, trying to create their own. The Science Center was losing money.”

A birthday party in the planetarium lobby, 2013. Photo by Lara Jackson.

The buses continued to run, although the number of students was noticeably smaller. The public still came for planetarium and observatory events. People booked the lobby and planetarium for kids’ birthday parties. The animals and the touch tank remained popular.

Bay News 9 set up a “weather station” allowing visitors to experience simulated hurricane- and tornado-force winds; robotics became a popular class, and state tournaments were held at the center.

But the world was changing too fast.

“We began to do manufacturing programs, and creating opportunities to help educate and establish apprenticeships and the like,”  Mikurak explains.

More birthday fun: Inside the Bay News 9 weather simulator are Michael Horn, left and Chance Hoffman. Photo by Lara Jackson.

With assist from the defense company Raytheon (Schweikert was director of engineering) and St. Pete College, they created a cybersecurity certification program.

These initiatives caught the attention of Ed Peachey, director of the job placement organization CareerSource Pinellas. The company had been looking for a location in northwestern St. Petersburg, and the Science Center could be had for a song.

Well, a cheap song (just $100, along with the promise of renovations and other improvements). Under the name of its parent corporation, WorkNet Pinellas, CareerSource “merged with” the aging Science Center in 2012, reconfiguring a portion of the space for its own day to day operation.

“Obviously, we’re going in there to make this work and kind of bring the Science Center back to life,” Peachey told his executive committee. “It’s fallen on hard times. It just needs an infusion of something new. We can bring that to the table.”

The property, he told them, was valued at $2.5 million.

Yet as schools improved their science curricula, they was less need for Science Center bussing. And as newer, shinier, more sophisticated science-focused destinations appeared (Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Great Explorations Museum in St. Pete), the Science Center continued to fade. And to lose money.

Peachey took out a $700,000 mortgage on the property and spent $400,000 on repairs, including a complete overhaul of the HVAC air system. Offices were constructed for CareerSource staff. For a period, children heading to their Science Center classes literally walked through the job placement area.

In 2018, Peachey was ousted from CareerSource over alleged financial and other improprieties, none of them concerning the Science Center. In December, facing a $586,000 balloon payment, company administrators considered refinancing, then decided to cut their losses and sell the property altogether.

The City of St. Petersburg paid WorkNet $3.15 million for the Science Center. The northernmost three acres were used for an expansion of the neighboring Northwest Water Reclamation Facility (the Carol Samuels Observatory structure was demolished for this purpose).

The (remaining) staff was terminated. The animals were relocated and most of the equipment sold off. The research-grade Meade Instrument telescope was donated to the St. Pete Astronomy Club, which had maintained it since its installation.

In addition to his role as Science Center board chair, Mikurak sat on the board of CareerSource. So he had a front-row seat for the Science Center’s final act. “It was no longer a viable entity in the community,” he says. “And the community saw it as not viable.”

July 23, 2021: City Councilmember Robert Blackmon, left, Representative Linda Chaney and Senator Darryl Rouson announce the acquisition of federal funding for the Science Center. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

City Councilmember Robert Blackmon, who represented District 1 (including the Azalea neighborhood) was the first to suggest that the Science Center – reconfigured for the 21st century – should not go up in historical smoke. 

Blackmon and his sister had attended summer camps there as children. “The best, most comprehensive, far-reaching scientific education I got in my life was the Science Center,” he explains. “They went so in-depth of computers, robotics … Native American history … astronomy … we went to Peace River and hunted for fossils on field trips. I said hey, maybe we can try and save this thing.”

It became a familiar refrain during his (unsuccessful) run for mayor. 

Blackmon found an ally in State Senator Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), whose brother got an engineering degree from Howard and a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford – and always credited the Science Center with sparking his interest in the sciences.

Irv Cohen and Joe Hamilton of the St Petersburg Group

As the Science Center appropriations from the state legislature and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development reached $5 million, Blackmon needed a nonprofit to receive the money; he settled on the outdoor education group Pathfinders. That organization in turn brought in the St. Petersburg Group, a civic-focused consultancy organization. The project continued to evolve.

Eventually SPG and its philanthropic arm, the St Petersburg Foundation, took the lead, securing $1.5 million in state funds in 2022 with Rouson and Rep. Linda Cheney (R-St. Petersbug). SPF added another $2.5 million in state funding this year with the aid of Rouson and Rep. Berny Jacques (R-Seminole), bringing the total to $9 million. 

Pathfinders and the Water Warriors Alliance, both environmentally-themed, will be two of the first occupants of the “new” Science Center. The City has agreed to sell the remaining four acres (including the buildings and the garden) to the St. Petersburg Group for $1.7 million.

The St Petersburg Group has a bold vision for the new facility, doubling its size and adding addtional services to serve the entire community, as well as children.

“Of all the projects available to us, this one had the best prospects for impact,” SPG co-founder Joe Hamilton explains, “and it allows us to build regional capacity for emerging technologies. Specifically, we want to be a center of excellence for artificial intelligence because it’s going to play critical role in our success as a community, as a region, going forward.”  

The original 1966 building is in poor condition, and will be replaced by a four-story, 45,000-square-foot facility. The Starley M. White Planetarium building will remain (the original Minolta projection machine for “star shows” is still there, although the seats and other creature comforts have been removed. No one has checked yet to see if it still works). The historic mosaic garden adjacent to the building will be restored to its former glory. 

The mosaic “Walk of States” in the Science Center garden will be restored. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Emerging technologies, Hamilton explains, will be the focus, but there will be “throwback” classes, events and even summer camps for young scientists.

Just like William Guild back in the 1950s, he’s looking towards the future.

“We think there’s an incredible opportunity to build the emerging tech power base for the region. The Science Center will act as a docking station for artificial intelligence and other emerging tech projects that impact education, careers, philanthropy, economic development, thought leadership, policymaking and whatever opportunities present themselves in the realm of AI.”  

Some details are still on the drawing board, and there are Ts to be crossed and Is to be dotted, but the Science Center will rise again.

Joe Hamilton is Publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst.

Read Part One here

Read Part Two here

Photo by Bill DeYoung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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