Things looked bleak for the Eugene Science Center after the COVID-19 pandemic hit over a year ago.
The center, at 2300 Leo Harris Parkway and named the Science Factory until 2018, was forced to close its doors in March 2020. Ten people were laid off — half the staff — including those handling the front desk, exhibits, facilities and the planetarium staff.
In order to survive, the center filed to become an emergency child care facility during the 2020-21 school year and has since operated with minimal staff and assistance from various grants, community support and Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“It was pretty brutal, we were a few weeks out from bankruptcy, and then the Oregon Cultural Trust funding came in, which helped a lot of organizations similar to us, and that gave us a lifeline,” Executive Director Tim Scott said.
Scott said things were conveniently set up for the center to apply for its emergency child care status since it already had staff trained to work with children.
Now with restrictions lifting, the science center is planning to reopen Sept. 10, resuming its exhibit-viewing, planetarium shows and other programming, as the region’s only hands-on science center.
“It’s still a challenge — we’re cautiously optimistic the community will be ready for us when we open in September,” Scott said.
Changing things up
On a recent overcast Thursday, dozens of kids in the center’s summer camp were playing in a field, while a handful of middle and high school students were inside the planetarium, receiving tutoring as they sat under the dome’s moody purple lights.
One of the students being tutored is Lula Di Paola, an 11-year-old from Cottage Grove, who said the center became her favorite place after her first visit as a 3-year-old.
“I’ve seen a lot of transformation of it throughout time, and I’m really happy that it stayed afloat throughout the pandemic because a lot of businesses have gone out,” Di Paola said.
Along with becoming an emergency child care facility, the center also had to rearrange itself, taking out some exhibits that required touching, in order to be COVID-safe. The center has started repopulating its exhibit floor, but a lot of things have been removed, Scott said.
Some new attractions include a life-sized T-rex skull, an earthquake exhibit and a shadow freeze exhibit where visitors can pose with their silhouette on a wall before a flashlight turns off and leaves the shadow on the wall.
“Our nature is hands-on activities, so when the pandemic first hit, a lot of science centers were like, ‘Crap, no one wants to touch anything anymore,’ ” Scott said.
Before the museum’s September reopening, it will have to hire for a variety of positions to handle guest relations, along with new exhibits and planetarium staff, Scott said.
The science center’s website shows nine positions vacant. The center is advertising for two job openings for a guest relations and operations director, and an exhibits and facilities technician.
Many of the exhibits also require repair, Scott said.
Aside from financial challenges, the change to more programming for children has been enjoyable for education director Karyn Knecht and her staff. She’s been able to see many of the same kids enrolled in both school-year child care and summer camps.
“Normally, it’s a little different because if you’re a science museum educator, you usually visit a school or have a weeklong camp,” Knecht said. “We’ve had the same kids here for most of the school year now. We’re in summer camp mode but we still see a lot of the same kids.
“It’s a fun change, and I know with the tutoring center, it’s a nice place where some of the students of color in town can come and have tutors that are like them and support them.”
Weathering the storm
Numerous museums were forced to lay off people as a result of pandemic, but the financial impacts were particularly hard for hands-on museums such as the science center and the Portland Children’s Museum, which shut down permanently this spring.
The science center was assisted by two PPP loans, one for $72,613 received in April 2020 and $79,800 in the second received in March.
It also received federal funding through the Oregon Cultural Trust, community donations, and support through a collaboration with the NAACP to provide free tutoring and child care to community members of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Black and Indigenous.
But the lack of regular paying visitors has taken its toll. The cancellation of football games at Autzen Stadium made the biggest dent. Before the pandemic, the center’s biggest annual fundraising event was selling tailgate parking spots next to the building, Scott said.
“A decent part of our annual revenue comes from selling those tailgating spots,” Knecht said. “We’re hopeful that this year we’re able to get that back.”
When September comes, Scott said the science center would likely end its child care program, but noted it would like to continue the partnership with the NAACP.
With the end to the science center’s converted child care status on the horizon, Di Paola said she’s grateful for its efforts to remain open and provide a good alternative way to socialize with other children in a time when virtual learning was becoming stale.
“I was always the last kid here, and I’d see them sanitizing like, everything, and it’s really difficult, but I’m happy they do that because then they can stay open,” Di Paola said. “I think it’s very awesome how they’re doing tutoring for kids because I know throughout the year it’s been really hard for them on hybrid learning.”
Eugene Science Center
Where: 2300 Leo Harris Parkway
Race Through Space: Families or individuals can sign up online, giving kids and adults a choice of several courses along Eugene’s Solar System Trail, which is dotted with miniature planets. Sign-up is at eugenesciencecenter.org/racethroughspace.
Fore more information: 541-682-7888, eugenesciencecenter.org.
Louis Krauss covers breaking news for The Register-Guard. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-521-2498, and follow him on Twitter @LouisKraussNews.