With its shattered windows, peeling paint and gaping holes in the interior drywall, the St. Petersburg Science Center is a dilapidated shell of the shining beacon of knowledge that was dedicated in 1966 and expanded seven years later. The city-owned building at 7701 22nd Ave. N has been vacant for three years; plans were underway to bulldoze and use the land for an expansion of a nearby wastewater treatment plant.
Thanks to $3 million in federal appropriations, added to $500,000 in previously-approved state funds, the Science Center’s bunsen burners will soon be lit once more.
Pathfinder Outdoor Education, a St. Petersburg nonprofit focused on outdoor and environmental education for young people, was specifically named on the grant application, and so will be the lead agency, working out of the building and making decisions as to what other groups can use it.
“There’s no solid plans yet,” said Amy Durand, the organization’s executive director. “That’s the next step, doing some strategic planning. Checking with the community, what the community wants and needs. How we can best support families, and the tech industry and jobs in St. Pete. But it’s really limitless, what we can do.”
City Councilmember Robert Blackmon, who spearheaded the process to save and restore the facility, said before a brief announcement ceremony Friday that he had once been a Science Center student.
“Hated it, every summer,” he laughed. “And looking back, it was the greatest science education I ever had.”
Blackmon received legislative support from Senator Darryl Rouson and Representative Linda Cheney, and from U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, who introduced the appropriation bill in Congress.
Rouson also attended the Science Center as a youth. So did Cheney’s children.
Blackmon said he hopes the refurbished Science Center will serve multiple uses – “kind of like a food hall for science” – and that a community event space, unique to the west side of town, will be part of the design.
Science, he stressed, will be the central focus in this age where STEM education is critical.
“In 2019, when I started talking about this, we didn’t have a pandemic. We didn’t have the worst red tide in recent memory. Now we do, and we want kids from the area to be able to help solve these problems and prevent them from happening again.”
Durand, who’s lived in St. Pete for two decades, said she’s always hearing from local residents about the glory days of the Science Center.
“There’s an Association of Science and Technology Centers in Washington, D.C., and I called them to talk about, what are the best practices for renovating a new science center? And they said ‘That St. Petersburg Science Center – we talk to people all the time that love that place.’
“They had an intern who came and worked for them because he loved the Science Center so much. So there definitely was lightning in a bottle with this.”