Ontario wanted to ‘keep the building alive’ in science centre closure, minister says

Click to play video: 'Government defends Ontario Science Centre shutdown'
Government defends Ontario Science Centre shutdown
WATCH: Government defends Ontario Science Centre shutdown – Jun 24, 2024

Days after abruptly closing it to the public without time to say goodbye, Ontario’s infrastructure minister says she wanted to keep the science centre open until 2028.

But stark warnings from engineers about the short-term and long-term safety of the building forced the government to take action sooner, Minister Kinga Surma said on Monday.

“It was my hope that we could keep the building alive until the new science centre was built but unfortunately we have to take the warning signs of engineers very seriously,” Surma said.

“This is a health and safety matter; it is workers and children that are in the building every day and therefore I am not going to risk the safety of workers and children. I will not under any circumstances.”

On Friday morning, the government began erecting tall security fences around the perimeter of the Ontario Science Centre at Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue. Hours later, it announced that it would be closing the popular attraction down forever at the end of the day.

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“We took immediate action,” Surma said. She said an engineering report completed June 18 flagging serious issues with parts of the roof prompted the science centre board to decide to close it “a day or two afterwards.”

Click to play video: 'Rally for Ontario Science Centre held as community voices displeasure with shutdown'
Rally for Ontario Science Centre held as community voices displeasure with shutdown

The report identified panels in “distressed, high-risk condition” that need to be fixed by the end of October in case the weight of snow damages them further.

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The engineering firm Rinkus Consulting Group said fully negating the risk would require replacing each of that type of roof panel at a cost of between $22 million and $40 million and that would take two or more years to complete with the facility closed.

The report said the building would remain safe until the end of October — when the risk of heavy snow increases — but Surma said the decision to close it immediately was made to allow for exhibitions to be moved.

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On Friday, officials said the consultants were “unequivocal” that the building had to be empty by the end of October. They said the problems with the roof were “indisputably a health and safety issue.”

Surma reiterated that position on Monday.

“The engineers were quite specific when we spoke to them that if we were to do work on the roof, we should replace the roof in its entirety,” she said. “And the building would have to be closed throughout that period of time, two to five years just for roof work alone.”

Families have decried the decision in the days since the 55-year-old building was unceremoniously closed.

A crowd of parents, children, educators and other community members gathered in a west Toronto park Sunday to call on the province to restore the centre in its current location instead.

Katarina Gligorijevic and Colin Geddes had planned to take their son Sasha to the centre on Friday but had an unexpected scheduling conflict, meaning the eight-year-old wasn’t able to visit one last time before it closed.

Click to play video: 'Ontario Science Centre: Community outraged over abrupt closure'
Ontario Science Centre: Community outraged over abrupt closure

The science centre was “one of the important cornerstones of our schedule” for Sasha, who is homeschooled and loved to spend hours looking at the frog section, his parents said.

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“The abruptness of the closure felt extremely unnecessary and cruel,” Gligorijevic said.

“To not give the thousands of kids in the city who love the science centre a chance to go one last time … it was just totally unnecessary and totally unreasonable,” she said. “This feels like not just an attack on a major cultural institution but also on education.”

Arushi Nath, a Grade 9 student in Toronto, said her family has had membership at the centre since she was born, and going there on weekends “felt like coming home.”

“It’s where I learned it’s OK for women and everyone to be passionate about science,” said Nath, who credits the centre with fuelling her curiosity.

The government is refunding memberships in light of the sudden closure.

Click to play video: 'Government announces sudden closure of Ontario Science Centre'
Government announces sudden closure of Ontario Science Centre

A business case released last year by the government found the current building is facing $369 million in deferred and critical maintenance needs over the next 20 years.

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The business case said that moving the science centre instead of renovating could save the government about $250 million over 50 years. A large part of those savings come from the smaller size of the new planned facility, though officials say there will be more exhibit space.

As part of its announcement to close the science centre, the government promised to refund summer camp places for those who had booked and offer free alternatives.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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