NORTH PERTH – A study on the feasibility of constructing an Agricultural Science Centre in North Perth was brought before council for discussion on Dec. 21.
“I’d like to thank council for supporting our application to fund the feasibility study which did start as a children’s museum project,” said Jillian Lewis, chair of the Huron-Perth Ag Science Centre Steering Committee. “Our objective is to achieve federal, provincial and private financial support to build an agriculture-focused science centre here in North Perth.”
The centre is intended to provide year-round education opportunities, primarily for children, their families and for school groups.
“It will supplement the sports and recreation programs we already enjoy,” said Lewis. “It will encourage more young families to live here. The Ag Science Centre will also build pride in agriculture which will hopefully help retain more youth in our community.”
The plan for the centre is to attract both regional residents and tourists because the closest science centres are in Toronto and Sudbury.
“There are federal and provincial capital funding programs that the committee will need to apply to for implementation of the Huron-Perth Ag Science Centre,” said Ted Silberberg, senior principal of LORD cultural resources.
He said a key issue for obtaining those funds will depend on demonstrating municipal support for the project.
“What we have recommended is allocating the land for the building and helping to pay for part of the annual operating cost,” said Silberberg. “We also think that an agriculture focus should help to increase the likelihood of private-sector support especially from the agriculture industry.”
The first recommendation for municipal support outlined in the plan is a donation of a municipally-owned site in North Perth with enough room for a building with about 15,000-square feet of useable space.
“I think that is large enough to be able to attract first-time and repeat visitors but modest enough to likely be implementable,” said Silberberg. “Capital costs for the building and exhibits are estimated at $13.8 million.”
It was also recommended the Ag Science Centre be an independent, not-for-profit institution, but that the Municipality of North Perth own the building.
“The building would be paid for entirely by federal, provincial and private capital funds and be leased to the science centre for $1 per year,” he said. “However as the owner of the building, we would like the municipality to contribute to building occupancy costs similar to your operating costs for public library and recreation facilities. We estimate the value of the occupancy costs – those are utilities, repairs, maintenance and insurance – to be in the range of $130,000 to $140,000 per year.”
Those costs are estimated within an annual operating budget for the Ag Science Centre of about $1 million.
“Annual operating funds are also going to be required from Perth County, Huron County, private donations and sponsorships and they are also going to want to know there is a municipal commitment to help with operating costs,” said Silberberg. “Earned income levels – that’s admissions, retail, rentals, birthday parties, memberships. We have projected those to cover about 55 per cent of operating revenues and that is in the same general range as other science centres and children’s museums and better than the performance of other museum types.”
Lewis concluded the presentation by letting council know they are seeking support from the municipal council regarding the desirability of the Ag Science Centre in North Perth and a conditional municipal commitment to land and to support part of the operating cost of the centre.
“This will substantially increase the likelihood of success in receiving our federal and provincial funds,” she said. “The municipal commitment requested is conditional. If we are not successful in receiving federal and provincial funds there would be no project and therefore no need for land in North Perth or annual financial support for the operations.”
Mayor Todd Kasenberg asked why the project had been changed from a children’s museum to an agriculture science centre.
“A children’s museum is oriented to very young children – usually it goes up to around eight,” said Silberberg. “A science centre will attract older children and also adults who are not accompanying children. Second, there is an issue of perceived duplication… there is no science centre in the region. The closest is in Toronto, the Ontario Science Centre, and then the next is Science North in Sudbury. However, there is a London Children’s Museum… it’s still in the region and it’s expanding so it’s important to avoid duplicating that.”
Lewis said the agriculture focus of the science centre would be unique because there currently are no agriculture-focused science centres in Canada.
Kasenberg asked CAO Kriss Snell what the process should be if council were to consider supporting the project.
Snell said the most obvious outcome from the deliberations at the council meeting would be to refer the project to the ongoing 2021 budget committee process.
Coun. Lee Anne Andriessen asked for clarification of the role the county would be involved in versus the local level of government.
“I think it’s an awesome project,” she said. “I’m excited about this type of focus but I just want to distinguish between those two roles. Certainly, it seems clear that the science centre would need to have land… from the lower tier but I’m just wondering around operating costs and support. Is that all from a shared county level as well? I saw in the report shared costs with Huron as well.”
“It is called the Huron-Perth Ag Science Centre… so at this size, it can be of regional orientation,” said Silberberg. “Because it is in Perth, we’ve done a scenario of where operating funds would come from. We’ve identified building occupancy cost… for a municipally-owned building to be paid by the Municipality of North Perth, we’ve estimated those costs to be in the range of $130,000 to $140,000 per year.”
It is also recommended $100,000 per year from Perth County and $50,000 per year from Huron County to support operating costs.
Kasenberg said he thought Andriessen’s question was a political one the reason to reach out to Perth and Huron counties.
“I think the premise has been answered but the question is would those other jurisdictions wish to participate,” he said. “That would remain to be tested moving forward so I think you could make the argument that both of those upper-tier municipal organizations do undertake economic development activities and… for that reason, it is politically reasonable to request those two entities in the context of this service as a regional science centre.”
Coun. Allan Rothwell said it is a very exciting concept.
“I am concerned however regarding the desire to strike out on our own as opposed to utilize or look specifically at the Stratford-Perth museum footprint as well as the Huron County footprint,” he said. “I understand that this is an agriculture science centre but there is the Country Heritage Park in Milton which was operated as the Ontario Agriculture Museum by the province of Ontario started in 1975 and then re-established as the Country Heritage Park by a non-profit corporation as I understand within a 90-minute drive of our location here. And that serves the whole province of Ontario.”
Rothwell said there are other agricultural museums but then said they were different than an agricultural science centre.
“I think I want to hear as we move forward in terms of what you see as a museum versus an agriculture science centre,” he said. “Then whether the fact we have the International Plowing Match which happens throughout Ontario once per year, except of course in 2020.”
Rothwell raised concerns about the operation and cost to establish and to maintain the operation with a staff of five plus additional support staff.
“I’m just not sure that in its form I see at the moment we’re going to be able to afford something going forward even from an operational cost,” he said.
Coun. Julie Behrns agreed with Rothwell.
“I know it sounds like an exciting project and thank you for all the work that has been put into it,” she said. “Quite frankly I think given the current state of the economy and our country I’m not so sure that we can budget for this in 2021.”
She spoke of an estimated $13.8 million capital cost which the report said is to be covered by federal, provincial or private funding, or the project will not happen.
“We’re talking about the gifting of land,” said Behrns. “We’re talking about supporting operating costs in perpetuity both at the North Perth level and at the Perth County level.”
Behrns said that there are two science centres in the province of Ontario, which she mentioned has a population just shy of 14 million people.
“I’m not so sure that a county of just 76,000 has the capabilities unfortunately to support it,” she said. “A lot of the other science centres around, whether it’s agriculture or whatever it usually has major corporate sponsors and I think there has got to be a little more legwork done and firm commitments on behalf of a number of the entities that were suggested in the report… unfortunately at this moment in time even though I think it’s a terrific idea I can’t support it at this time.”
“The ask is not for 2021, the ask is for 2024,” said Silberberg. “That is when the building would be assumed to be opened. So the whole assumption is that there would be federal, provincial and private money for the capital. If there is not capital there would be no need for land and no need for operating support but to proceed they need an indication of support from the municipality that would be conditional upon all of the capital funds being there so I just wanted to clarify that.”
Council received the report and referred the issue to the 2021 budget deliberations for further discussion.
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner