NORTH PERTH – Jill Lewis, chair of the Huron-Perth Ag Science Centre Steering Committee, envisions providing a place in North Perth for kids and people of all ages to come and explore a variety of different aspects of science and technology which will incorporate science, technology, engineering/ecology, arts/agriculture, and mathematics, all the aspects of STEAM learning.
She pictures it as a destination for school field trips, for birthday parties, for locals or tourists from far and wide.
“We’re hoping to incorporate co-ops for high schools so students with all sorts of different interests could run programs for youth and be able to volunteer or even get jobs,” said Lewis. “It will employ people but also provide meaningful volunteer opportunities in the community.”
It is planned that the science centre would be an interactive educational resource which will be open year-round.
“It will provide enjoyable opportunities especially in the winter months when driving is not ideal and people don’t want to have to drive to the city to be able to do something fun with their kids,” said Lewis. “We will offer annual memberships, so we’ll encourage families to get memberships so that they can come back throughout the year.”
Plans include a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits to keep things fresh and encourage repeat visits.
She said in the past they have partnered with the Listowel Ag Society applying for grants and the municipality. Lewis feels there are great partnerships already established but others could be developed with groups and events like the Listowel Agricultural Fair, the 4-H Club, and she suggested the Ag Science Centre would be an excellent place where Big Brothers, Big Sisters could go on outings.
When a feasibility study that was recently completed the consulting company, Lord Cultural Resources, realized and pointed out that there are no agriculture-focused science centres in Canada.
“We already knew going into this agriculture was going to be a big focus of what we wanted to do even from the beginning,” said Lewis. “Just knowing that’s what makes our community unique and we want to help build that pride in agriculture because that is a big part of who we are as a community and the larger community of Perth County and Huron County.”
The unique aspect of the science centre provides an opportunity for partnership within the agriculture industry.
Lewis said focusing on the science aspect of agriculture could help bridge the rural-urban divide.
“The mayor (Todd Kasenberg) has talked about that with our group as we’ve been going through talking about how we can make people who are unaware of how the agriculture industry works, how do we incorporate them into this,” she said.
Initially when the project was started the idea was for a children’s museum but the plan changed gears and moved towards a science centre.
“Well, science is my background as well but not the agriculture side of things,” said Lewis. “That is something I am learning as we go along as well which is pretty fun and interesting… We’re just sort of getting the ball rolling and getting the project started and then we will see who will be the best people to consult with to help bring in the content.”
The difference between a science centre and museum, which is more collection focused, came up during a recent discussion at the Dec. 21 North Perth council meeting.
“There may be a bit of confusion going back to where the project started as a children’s museum,” said Lewis. “A lot of people don’t know what a children’s museum is and that it’s all interactive and play-based. It’s not collections-based.”
She said a children’s museum, like a science centre, is a place to go play, explore and learn, but a science centre is a way of making it bigger and more appealing to people of all ages.
“The plan is actually to have a kid’s zone within the science centre to go back to our children’s museum roots to have somewhere for younger kids to go and play,” said Lewis.
The rest of the centre will be a place where people of all ages can explore, learn and look at all the advancements in science and technology affecting how agriculture works.
Lewis thinks Stratford-Perth Museum and others in the region could be great partners.
“Those are places which were included in the feasibility study and interviews which were done by the consultants,” she said.
Lord Cultural Resources spoke to the Stratford-Perth Museum and other local museums to find out what attendance is like what funding is available.
“Looking at all of those pieces to see how a children’s museum might do here what the consultant found was we’d have better luck doing something unique, something different than what is already in existence,” said Lewis. “The nearest children’s museum is in London which is 90 minutes away but our nearest science centre is in Toronto and it’s not agriculture-based. It would be a totally different experience so that is why ours would be unique and then it would be a draw for people who are further from Toronto.”
Lewis said the municipality is not being asked for any of the $13.8 million capital costs for the cost of the building.
“What we’re going to do is get the money for that from the federal and provincial governments – there are grants available for stuff like this,” she said. “You just have to apply for it and when we apply for it we have to be able to say our municipality is on board and they are going to help with the operating costs but if we can’t say that the municipality is going to help us then the provincial government and the federal government are going to say, ‘why are we going to help you if your local government won’t even help you?’”
What she said is being asked of the municipality is to help with operating costs which is estimated to be $130,000 to $150,000 per year starting once it opens.
“So if we don’t open until 2024, which would be amazing if we were open by then, but I don’t even know when it might open, that’s when we would need the money,” said Lewis. “So we’re not asking for money from the municipality to build it at all.”
She said there has been support from the municipality and council since the project was presented to them.
“They thought it was valuable and they partnered with us and applied for a Trillium grant on our behalf because we are so new that we’re not an established charity yet,” said Lewis. “So when we first brought this forward we had to ask the municipality to apply in its name for the grant for the feasibility study.”
The municipality has also provided support by having Kim Kowch, community development coordinator, work with the Huron-Perth Ag Science Centre Steering Committee.
“Now, since the feasibility study has come back looking so positive we’re asking for them to help out once it is open and then the other piece to that is asking for a piece of land where we could put it,” said Lewis.
Once the steering committee has a more solid idea if the plan is going forward, it will get registered as a charity and incorporate as a not-for-profit organization.
“We haven’t done that yet because we don’t know if we are a go or not,” she said. “We’re not going to put money into it until we know we are going to move forward.
“Once we’re established that way and we can start offering tax receipts for donations.”
Lewis said they have spoken to different organizations in both Huron and Perth counties but they have not presented the idea to any government in Huron yet.
“We’re starting here with our municipality first and we will have to branch out from there but the big idea is we want it to be a regional centre,” she said.
With North Perth located between Huron and Wellington counties, she said there is a possibility of asking for support from all of the surrounding areas but when they were planning they felt the need to focus the name even though they hope to make it a regional centre.
Lewis admits that location would be out of her hands and up to the municipality, but she said she thinks she would like to see it on Binning Street West across from Westfield School and the Steve Kerr Memorial Complex.
“There is some land over there by the roundabout,” she said. “It would be visible from both highways, it’s near retail and food and it’s on the Huron side of Listowel. That’s where I have always envisioned it.”
There were a few other locations suggested in the feasibility report including the Listowel Memorial Arena.
“Location wise it is not necessarily ideal because it is off the main highways,” she said.
Lewis said the steering committee has its fingers crossed hoping council still supports the idea of an Ag Science Centre.
“I think the community support so far has been phenomenal,” she said. “There are so many people who have reached out to us and said ‘we love what you are doing, how can we help?’ At this point, it’s a little early for that but I just hope the council can see the benefits for the community especially after COVID… it’s hard to talk about that right now during COVID but it’s going to be an opportunity for after when things are getting back to normal and helping the economy rebound a little bit especially in North Perth and to be able to bring in people from outside of town to support our local businesses.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner