Monday, November 25, 2013

Deal close to reopen Centre of the Universe for students and public viewings

Saanich South MLA Lana Popham the Centre of the Universe in
the summer, kicking off a a bid to keep the Saanich facility open.
A deal to do that is now close.  Photo: BRUCE  STOTESBURY, TC.

The stars are aligning for the Centre of the Universe to light up again for Saturday night gazing by students if a tentative agreement is sealed.
The centre is an interpretive centre adjacent to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on West Saanich Road. It closed its doors on Aug. 24.
The National Research Council, a government agency reporting to Parliament through the Industry Ministry, said in June it was closing the educational arm of the observatory and public access due to financial constraints, with the promise it would look at maintaining some form of public access on weekends and during special events.
On Saturday, representatives from the National Research Council, the observatory and community stakeholders met and designed a plan to resume public access to the centre.
The University of Victoria non-profit group Science Venture, which runs youth summer camps, proposed a six-month pilot project of workshops for school tours and science camps during school breaks and professional development days.
Volunteers with the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada offered to conduct Saturday night viewings for the public, beginning in April.
“The NRC agreed to pay for all the infrastructure, maintenance, utility and security costs for the Centre of the Universe. They also agreed to negotiate free public access to the observatory so regular Saturday night viewings could resume,” said Saanich South NDP MLA Lana Popham, who has led the charge to reinstate public access.
The facility had cost an average of $310,000 a year to run and brought in between $50,000 and $60,000 in revenue, according to Greg Fahlman, general manager of the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, in a recent interview. Total budget cuts to the observatory this summer were roughly $1.8 million, he said.
Two working groups were created at the meeting. The first group will look at practical next steps and will be chaired by Don Moffatt, a science and business analyst and the originator of the online petition to save the Centre of the Universe.
The second group will look at the long-term vision and business case for the centre and will be chaired by Dale Ryan, director of public relations for Butchart Gardens.
Those at the meeting Saturday included: Dan Wayner, the NRC vice-president and Greg Fahlman, general manager of the Observatory and Herzberg Institute, as well as school teachers, UVic experts; the Royal Museum of B.C representatives, business people and volunteers.
Don Moffatt, who conducted public education out of the observatory in the 1990s, before the interpretive centre opened in 2001, started a petition asking the government to reconsider the closure. It has more than 2,000 signatures.
As a result of the closing in August, three full-time positions were cut in addition to three to four summer student positions. One full-time staff member was reassigned.
The Centre of the Universe opened in 2001as an educational arm of the observatory, a national historic site.
Closing the educational program, which attracted about 10,000 people, including school groups last year, is projected to save about $245,000 in wages plus $32,000 for maintenance, utilities and taxes.
The observatory saw capacity crowds each Saturday night of August before closing.