Deal near for limited reopening of Centre of the Universe

The Centre of the Universe might be in for a meteoric change if a vision for food and more futuristic displays are built into a plan to reopen the facility to star-gazers and school children.

The centre opened in 2001 as an educational arm of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, a national historic site, on West Saanich Road.

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The National Research Council shut down the interpretive centre on Aug. 24 due to financial constraints, promising it would look at maintaining some form of public access on weekends and during special events.

On Saturday, about 30 people — including representatives from the council, the observatory and community stakeholders — met and designed a plan to resume partial public access to the centre.

“From the beginning, we were encouraging a community-based solution,” said Dan Wayner, vice-president of the National Research Council Canada.

Volunteers with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada offered to conduct Saturday night viewings for the public, beginning in April or May.

“We didn’t actually stop the Saturday night viewing,” Wayner said. “At the end of the season, initially, we didn’t have a clear outlook on how they would be continued — but now we see a way forward.”

The observatory is anchored by the Plaskett telescope, built beginning in 1914.

Wayner said the council will help with the transition of the building’s operation over the next “several years.” That assistance will mean providing public access to the building without fees, covering basic operating costs and contributing to municipal taxes.

“But this is still subject to negotiation,” Wayner said. “The community first needs to become organized and come forward so that we can actually talk and come to a conclusion of how we are going to work together.”

The non-profit group Science Venture, which runs youth summer camps at the University of Victoria, has proposed a six-month pilot project of workshops for school tours and science camps during school breaks and professional development days.

The facility had cost an average of $310,000 a year to run and brought in between $50,000 and $60,000 in revenue, Greg Fahlman, general manager of the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, said recently.

Don Moffatt, a University of Victoria astronomy graduate and business analyst, will lead the group looking at short-term steps for getting the Saturday night viewings and school tours back on track.

Moffatt, who conducted public education out of the observatory in the 1990s, started a petition asking the government to reconsider the closure. It now has more than 2,000 signatures.

Moffatt is most excited about the long-term vision for the centre, which will be overseen by chairwoman Dale Ryan, director of public relations for Butchart Gardens. Business leaders will look at how to make the centre a sustainable education and tourist site.

Hayley Rosenberg, owner of Nourish restaurant, said everything from onsite food and refreshments to displays that honour the history of the centre and showcase future technologies were discussed as possibilities.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com 

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