Two and a half years ago, Emerald Coast Science Center Director Diane Fraser wasn't sure the Fort Walton Beach children's science museum would survive the pandemic.
Two weeks ago, Fraser took the stage at a conference in Pittsburgh to accept an award that honored the science center for surviving and thriving during that time.
The Emerald Coast Science Center received the Roy L. Shafer Leading Edge Award in Resilience from the Association of Science and Technology Center, an international association that provides support and programming opportunities for science centers and museums.
The Resilience Award recognizes organizations that have overcome a significant challenge, with a focus on how the institution approached the hardship to achieve new life, mission and potential.
Emerald Coast Science Center: kicks off summer with splash
2020 was pinnacle year. Until it wasn't.
What a difference two and a half years make.
"When we started the pandemic, we had no savings, we didn't even have enough money to cover a month's worth of expenses," Fraser said.
In 2014, the science center moved from Brooks Street in downtown Fort Walton Beach to its current location at 31 Memorial Parkway, taking out a mortgage to purchase what had been the city's old senior center. Fraser said it was a struggle, but every year was getting better: more visitors, more field trips, more grants and more programs.
"We were at a pinnacle year at 2020. We had a field trip booked every single day after spring break of 2020," Fraser said.
But in March 2020, Okaloosa County students left for spring break and, because of the pandemic, didn't return until the fall. There were no field trips that school year, nor the next.
"There's no other program that you can do that would be what a field trip would be to your financial bottom line," Fraser said.
The science center's walk-in visitors dropped precipitously as well. Fraser estimated the center lost $109,000 in revenue from those two sources in the spring and summer of 2020.
"It was so scary. Our board met via Zoom weekly," Fraser said. "We'd say 'We have enough money in the bank to stay open until June' and then we got the first round of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), so then we said 'Now we can stay open through August.'"
Community, businesses rally around science center
Clearly, there needed to be some sort of long-term support if the science center was to remain open. Fraser met with Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce President Ted Corcoran and came up with a plan, appealing directly to the community for financial support and involving local businesses in a way that hadn't been done before.
"We went out to the community and started talking about how scary it was going to be for museums," Fraser said. "We had incredible people just start donating, we would get checks in the mail, some people made donations through Facebook."
Local businesses, like Eglin Federal Credit Union and Mills Heating and Air, stepped in with monetary support, as did members of TeCMEN, a local organization that advocates for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries. And that support, big and small, helped the center through the roughest patches of the pandemic.
The pandemic also had an unexpected positive impact on the science center as well.
"It sort of slowed us down and made us really look around and say 'What do we really need to focus on?" Fraser said. "Everybody said 'Go outside,' that was the thing. You're safer outside, and we have this huge space."
In June 2020, Fraser and her staff of about 12 part-time educators began to look for ways to make use of the center's 2-acre property, which had only picnic tables and a tortoise exhibit. They devised plans for outdoor exhibits and contacted local builders asking if they would be willing to donate any of the materials needed.
"Whitworth Homes and Navarre Lumber reached out to us and said we'll give you everything on your list," said Fraser.
Local concrete contractor GCF provided labor and materials to build a giant sandbox where children could dig for dinosaur bones. Watree Homes and airmen from Hurlburt Field's RED HORSE civil engineering squadron partnered to build a roof over the dino dig. Fraser also tapped into another military resource, students from the U.S. Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal training school. Recently arriving students whose classes had not yet started helped construct many of the outdoor exhibits.
"For about six months, we had a regular group that came here every Thursday, anywhere from eight to 10 people," Fraser said. "So that was our labor."
In February 2021, Liza Jackson Preparatory School donated their STEAM bus, a science and technology classroom on wheels, to the science center. The stationary bus needed power run to it for air conditioning and a roof to protect it from the elements. Local members of the National Defense Industrial Association trade group purchased a car port for the bus and volunteers from Florida Power and Light built a deck around it. Volunteers also built a treehouse, a stage, and decking around an exhibit on boating and water safety.
"We couldn't have done it by ourselves," Fraser said. "None of this had even been on the drawing board before the pandemic."
'We came close to permanently closing during the pandemic. Instead, we survived and expanded'
Donations and volunteer work over the past two years has nearly doubled the number of exhibits at the science center. And all that effort and money seems to be paying off. For the science center's fiscal year ending June 30, there were 23,000 visitors.
"Our best pre-pandemic year was about 18,600," Fraser said. "We've not only surpassed the pre-pandemic us, we actually grew."
Fraser said annual family memberships have more than doubled to about 650, and school field trips, which began again in January, are on track to meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels in the next year.
"This award really belongs to our community," Fraser said. "We came close to permanently closing during the pandemic. Instead, we survived and expanded."
The once eerily quiet halls at the science center are now filled again with sounds of young minds learning.
"When you hear those kids laughing, or you do something and they have that "aha" moment, it just brings you joy," Fraser said. "And to not have that was soul crushing."
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Emerald Coast Science Center survives COVID pandemic, comes out stronger