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Pinellas leaders fight to put science back in the Science Center

An effort is underway to revitalize the Science Center, once a shining star of extracurricular science education for kids.
Local leaders are fighting to revitalize the Science Center of Pinellas County.
Local leaders are fighting to revitalize the Science Center of Pinellas County. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 4

ST. PETERSBURG — When the city bought the Science Center of Pinellas County from the county’s job placement agency last year, CareerSource, the building was fated for a teardown.

The northern portion of the property, adjacent to the Northwest Water Reclamation Facility, would be used for wastewater storage tanks. And the Science Center building, now dilapidated and in need of repair, could be torn down and the land used for affordable housing, which city officials say is desperately needed and ideally suited for parcels already owned by the city.

Broken windows at he Pinellas County Science Center in St. Petersburg seen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Broken windows at he Pinellas County Science Center in St. Petersburg seen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

But there’s a snowballing effort to revitalize the Science Center and transform it back into the hub of extracurricular STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, sometimes called STEAM if it includes art — for students and teens that it once was, plus an event space. Under the burgeoning idea, youth education nonprofit Great Explorations could run the revitalized facility. City Council member Robert Blackmon, who has been spearheading the campaign, said the biggest issues St. Petersburg faces are those of science and engineering, most notably a rising sea level.

Related: CareerSource Pinellas is selling its Science Center, and the money may not go where promised

“We know in our area the new jobs are going to be in STEM,” he said recently during a tour of the facility with state Sen. Darryl Rouson, both of whom attended the Science Center as kids and remember their time there fondly. “We need kids who are from here with skin in the game to learn about this stuff.”

The exterior of the Pinellas County Science Center in St. Petersburg seen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
The exterior of the Pinellas County Science Center in St. Petersburg seen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The original Science Center opened in 1959 in downtown St. Petersburg. The buildings on the current site, at 7701 22nd Ave. N in Jungle Terrace, just west of Raytheon, went up in 1966 and 1973 and have undergone several renovations. By 2004, the facility was thriving, with more than 20,000 people visiting the site to tour the Indian village, marvel at the planetarium show and learn about wildlife, hurricanes, geology, robotics and chemistry.

But by 2014, the center’s finances were failing and CareerSource bought the place, under whose leadership the facility continued to wallow. Now, the building with a painting of the Challenger space shuttle on its exterior wall sits empty, its classrooms ransacked and vandalized.

Related: City buying Science Center from CareerSource, may tear it down

To build the new wastewater tanks, the city will likely have to tear down a small observatory and a building that was once an arcade on the north side of the property. But what’s left of the 7-acre parcel, where the classrooms, planetarium and gardens sit, would remain untouched by that project.

Those who wish to save the Science Center see it as a launching pad for high-paying, high-impact careers, a way to bridge racial divides and propel kids forward, from fortunate and less fortunate backgrounds alike.

Blackmon, whose district includes the Science Center and who called bringing it back his “top priority in government,” found a 1981 St. Petersburg Times article that tracked where former Science Center students ended up. There was a rocket scientist working on the space shuttle, an assistant Pinellas County administrator specializing in environmental and planning issues, a software engineer and a pathologist.

Rouson’s brother, Damian Rouson, a computer scientist and entrepreneur who has a doctorate from and taught at Stanford University, credits the Science Center with putting him on that path.

The garden area of the Pinellas County Science Center.
The garden area of the Pinellas County Science Center. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“My emphasis would be to make sure that children from the south side, in particular Midtown, have access to the Science Center,” the senator said. “Because I can see children like me, children like my brother, benefiting and growing from the experience.”

Angeline Howell, Great Exploration’s chief executive, called the opportunity to operate the Science Center “incredible.” Currently, Great Explorations only serves kids up to age 10, but the organization has been looking to expand to an older demographic of kids. And the property backs up against Azalea Middle School.

The project has gotten widespread support from leaders at every level of government. Rouson and Rep. Linda Chaney, whose districts include the Science Center, both support the project. Rouson said he will file a bill in the Florida Senate requesting state funds; Chaney’s office said she was considering a similar measure.

At the county level, several commissioners, including René Flowers, whose district includes the Science Center, and Kathleen Peters and Charlie Justice all back the project. Depending on the project’s details, it could possibly qualify for county funds.

The project also has an ally in St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who wrote in a memo to Blackmon that he is “generally supportive of the concept” and said he is open to tapping into the city’s Weeki Wachee Fund, a reserve meant to enhance recreation and environmental activities.

The exterior of the Pinellas County Science Center in St. Petersburg seen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
The exterior of the Pinellas County Science Center in St. Petersburg seen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

There’s consensus among those who support the project that the property is better suited to host a renewed science education facility than affordable housing. Blackmon argued that to build homes would require the city to spend money demolishing the buildings. And Peters said the county is already making a massive commitment to affordable housing and wants to focus it along major transportation corridors, to make it easier for residents to get to work and school.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said housing remains an option there, but the first priority is to expand the water reclamation plant.

A City Council committee will discuss the fate of the Science Center later this month.