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It has been six months since the Da Vinci Science Center announced its plans for a major expansion project in downtown Easton, tentatively called Da Vinci Science City. As the feasibility planning period remains underway, notable progress has been reported in both business planning and fundraising efforts.
In an update delivered by Lin Erickson, Executive Director and CEO of Da Vinci Science Center, to the Northampton County Community and Economic Development Committee on June 1, plans were confirmed to move forward developing and testing a masterplan for the proposed facility and its programs later this summer. A marketing study would then be conducted, partially funded by Northampton County, followed by a third party business plan to test and validate projected attendance and operating costs of the new complex. Two-thirds of the funding has been secured or is in negotiations to support the feasibility planning period’s projected $1.2 million budget.
Erickson also reported on strong interest from public and private sources to fund the totality of the $130M project, with a fundraising goal to achieve 65 percent of the total project cost by this time next year. “We have been very pleased and appreciative of the response to date, which demonstrates the community’s strong interest in furthering our mission and supporting this bold undertaking” said Erickson. “There is clearly an opportunity for potential funders to help create something big and truly important for education and economic development in the greater Lehigh Valley region today and for decades to come.”
Erickson was joined remotely by Ron Littlefield, former Mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Littlefield’s insight on a similar-sized project in nature, the Tennessee Aquarium, helped shed light on the potential economic impact that the Northampton County government might anticipate from the Easton project. Estimates developed for the project that were modeled on the experience of the Tennessee Aquarium suggest that the County can expect to realize an estimated $2 million increase in hotel and real-estate tax revenue by year five and nearly double that in year ten.
Littlefield’s personal account also illustrated the project’s potential influence on Northampton County’s overall quality of life, a factor he indicated was instrumental to Volkswagen in 2008 when they chose Chattanooga as a site for their new automotive production facility. “I have a distinct memory of the President of Volkswagen in America looking out over the city’s downtown and riverfront, motioning toward all that had developed there since the opening of our Aquarium, when he said they chose Chattanooga because of ‘the intangibles, because at some point the intangibles become tangible’,” Littlefield recalled. “The clear tipping point in their decision came down to quality of life, and that is what the Tennessee Aquarium afforded them.”
One aspect of the Da Vinci Science City proposal that has received much attention is the inclusion of an aquarium attraction. Some concern has been expressed about the viability of having two similar attractions of this type within such close proximity in the event that a for-profit aquarium attraction is eventually developed in Pocono Manor, Pa. Erickson addressed these concerns directly using an assessment compiled by Educational Marketing Strategies.
According to the study, it is possible for multiple aquariums to operate successfully within the same market or in adjacent markets. Citing examples in San Francisco and Tampa, the study notes that four of the top twenty-five attended aquariums in the United States actually exist in close proximity to other major aquariums; the key to successful coexistence appears to be offering distinct programmatic experiences that are complementary. The two aquariums currently being considered for the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos would adhere to this model, with the Da Vinci Science City’s primary focus being education and a for-profit aquarium more likely focusing on entertainment.
Noting Science City’s location at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers, Erickson shared plans for a major exhibition on the Delaware and Lehigh River Watersheds that would provide an upfront look at local wildlife and aquatic creatures and motivate visitors to take action to protect and preserve the local environment. Using a “Mountains to Sea” framework tracing the Delaware River from its origins in the Pocono Mountains to its exit into the Atlantic Ocean, she promised Council committee members a 500,000 gallon main tank featuring sharks and other exotic sea animals from the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to not cannibalizing each other in attendance, the data further suggests that multiple aquariums in a region may actually help grow the market for tourism in ways that one aquarium alone would not. With an annual combined tourist base of 40 million between the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos, any growth above and beyond would further contribute to the economic impact of the Easton expansion project.
The proposed Da Vinci Science City complex is expected to complement the Da Vinci Science Center’s existing facility in Allentown, which would be refocused as a Children’s Discovery Center for ages 8 and under. Together the facilities would serve local area youth from pre-K through high school and beyond with the mission of bringing more lives to science, expanded access to learning in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and increased entry into the STEM workforce pipeline.
About The Da Vinci Science Center: Open for ExSCIting Possibilities
The Da Vinci Science Center is a national award-winning science center that has brought science to life and lives to science since 1992. Da Vinci Science Center experiences make science fun and approachable, helping to connect people of all ages and backgrounds with the wonders of science. An independent nonprofit organization with IRS 501©(3) status, the Da Vinci Science Center engages more than 140,000 participants annually with its exhibits, programs, events, and partnerships.
Additional information and opportunities to support the Da Vinci Science Center are available on the web at davincisciencecenter.org and facebook.com/davincisciencecenter.