Centre of the Universe in Saanich closing by summer’s end in bid to pare costs

The lights will go out at the Centre of the Universe at the end of the summer.

The astronomy interpretive centre adjacent to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on West Saanich Road will shut its doors to the public, the federal government confirmed Thursday.

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Cost-cutting was cited as the reason; $245,000 will be saved in wages for three staff — one full time and two part time — plus $32,000, which includes maintenance, utilities and taxes. The full-time staffer will be moved to another federal job.

“The activities of the centre will no longer be sustained due to financial constraints,” said Charles Drouin, chief spokesman for the National Research Council Canada, in a phone interview.

The centre opened in 2001 as an educational arm of the observatory, a national historic site. In 2012 it attracted about 10,000 people, including busloads of school children, seniors groups and tourists to see things such as an iron meteorite — bringing in $47,000 in revenue.

“It’s unfortunate those things are going to stop,” said Greg Fahlman, general manager of the centre and the observatory, which employs 110 people.

Education for the public is a necessary part of astronomy research at the observatory — it’s why the centre was built — but tough choices had to be made and priorities chosen, Fahlman said.

The observatory is anchored by the Plaskett telescope, built beginning in 1914 and in operation since May 1918. For six months, with a 1.8-metre aperture, it was the biggest telescope in the world, said Chris Gainor, national vice- president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. “I am very sorry to hear this news,” Gainor said. “The telescope is quite historic … and it’s nearing its 100th anniversary.”

There are no plans to repurpose or “bulldoze” the centre, said Fahlman.

“The building itself will not be torn down and we are very mindful that this is part of Victoria. This [adjacent observatory] dome is visible almost everywhere in the city,” Fahlam said.

“What we are currently doing is searching for ways of delivering appropriate levels of access to the grounds and the telescope and we just haven’t got our heads around how to do that without the Centre of the Universe.”

Drouin said the hope is that volunteers will open the building on weekends.

He said in the absence of the centre, young people will have access to astronomy websites and smartphone applications.

Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca NDP MP Randall Garrison, who represents the observatory area, said he can’t grasp axing a hands-on community program promoting science and technology. “It drives you crazy.”

Green party Leader Elizabeth May called news of the centre closing “outrageous” and said the interactive centre is irreplaceable. “It’s one of those penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions which so typifies the Stephen Harper administration,” said the Saanich-Gulf Islands MP.

Victoria NDP MP Murray Rankin called the closure “a serious blow” to the community. “This has to be understood in the broader context of what the Conservative government is doing to the scientific base of Canada,” Rankin said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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