Science Center of Pinellas County, once slated to be torn down, to be revived

·4 min read

The unoccupied Science Center of Pinellas County has become a fossil of sorts. It brimmed with life for decades as countless kids learned inside, but now boarded-up windows, a faded mural depicting the space shuttle Challenger and empty classrooms mark the decay of the building, which seemed slated for demolition when St. Petersburg bought it in 2019.

But the Science Center is now set to come back to life with new funding aimed at retooling the building into a modernized science and technology learning center, officials announced Friday.

A $500,00 allocation from the state this year to the nonprofit Pathfinder Outdoor Education will help stave off demolition and start the process of fixing up the building, according to City Council member and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon, who has led the restoration effort.

Hopes of $3 million in additional funding from the federal government, as well as private contributions, could help turn the now-run-down building into a hub for STEM education, officials said during a news conference at the center Friday.

Blackmon, as well as state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Linda Chaney R-St. Petersburg, toured the building Friday and talked of their hopes for what will be done with the funding.

While the $3 million federal funding — which has been requested by Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who is also running for Florida governor — is not certain, the St. Petersburg officials appeared optimistic it would be approved.

“This needs to be preserved,” Chaney said, peeking into the now-quiet rooms.

Scattered broken glass dots the floor inside the center, but much of the building’s original character remains. Mosaic tiles wind around the center’s overgrown garden, marking the bird, flower and shape of each state. A plastic torso displaying the body’s organs sits on a geology lab table. Chairs are ordered in a circle under the dark, domed roof of the planetarium.

“The bones are going to be the same, but the finishes are going to be incredible,” said Blackmon, who works as a real estate developer. He estimated such a building would cost $20 million to construct new.

The Science Center opened downtown in 1959 and moved to its current location seven years later. By 2004, over 20,000 people were firing off model rockets, tinkering with robots at summer camps and hearing talks about topics like alligator safety and hurricane preparation.

CareerSource bought the building in 2014 as the center struggled with its finances. It continued to wallow under the organization’s leadership. When the city purchased the building in 2019, it seemed likely the building would be torn down so a wastewater treatment plant could be expanded and affordable housing built.

Chaney said she remembered her kids asking to come to the Science Center and taking radios apart at summer camp. Rouson said he used to visit the center as a child with his brother, now a mechanical engineer and computational researcher who credits the Science Center with sparking a passion for computers.

“We’ve been losing a generation of kids to an empty building,” Rouson said. “We need to make sure minority children have access.”

As Blackmon walked through the space, he tried to look into the future: weddings in the garden, a DJ and a dance floor outside the planetarium, solar panels on the roof.

He attended camps at the Science Center as a kid, and began the nascent effort to bring it back to life last year. With initial funding secured, he hopes multiple nonprofits aimed at teaching kids science, technology, engineering, arts and math can move in and create space for minority students.

When that might happen remains unclear.

Before the building can be leased to Pathfinder, the City Council must first approve the use of discretionary funds to buy it from the Public Works department. The renovation money will likely be dispersed in January, and the center could open up in early 2023, Blackmon said.

Pathfinder also still has to look for partner organizations to share the science hub with and work on renovation plans, said Pathfinder board member Vincent Della Rocca. Kids will be back in the building “as soon as we can possibly do it,” he added.

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