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Headwaters Science Center seeks to become regional attraction

Students from King Elementary School in Deer River visit the Headwaters Science Center on Tuesday, as HSC officials announce they will create a regional advisory group to strengthen the center's position as a regional attraction for state funding. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Laddie Elwell leaned against a wall with a big smile on her face Tuesday, as dozens of kids from King Elementary School in Deer River climbed all over the exhibits and explored with the open curiosity that youngsters that age possess.

"You just want to bottle up all their laughter," said Elwell, executive director of the Headwaters Science Center in downtown Bemidji, "and open it up on days when things aren't going as well."

She's had plenty of those days lately, as the Headwaters Science Center confronted and crossed every hurdle put in front of them in the way of getting $475,000 put in the Legislature's capital bonding public works bill.

And then Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his red pen to line-item veto the $475,000 for new Headwaters Science Center planning and design. Pawlenty saw the $26 million project as a local project, and should be funded locally. "The bill contains too many appropriations for local projects," Pawlenty said in his veto letter, "which are funding (in this bill) while some statewide priority needs are disregarded."

Elwell and Roger Davis, an HSC board member, announced Tuesday that HSC will form a regional advisory group to strengthen the Science Center's regional presence, and also to work on area communities to fund-raise for the Science Center.

"We were pushed pretty hard by Sen. Mary Olson" after the veto, said Davis, a retired Minnesota State University, Mankato, political science and urban planning professor who is now on the HSC Board. "We were now already regional, and we're being pushed pretty hard by legislators to look at even a broader picture."

The Headwaters Science Center seeks to build a new facility next to the Beltrami History Center on the Mississippi River. The facility is estimated at $13 million and another $13 million will be needed for furnishings, scientific equipment and exhibits.

"They both worked very hard and we want to thank them," Davis said of Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who shepherded the planning and design funds through the Legislature only to have it vetoed.

"There may be an opportunity to approach the state for partial funding for design in 2011," Elwell said.

The state normally considers bonding bills every other year, but it could consider a supplemental bonding bill in 2011 to recover some of the projects Pawlenty vetoed this year, especially if a Democratic governor is elected this fall.

Getting planning and design money in 2011 will still keep HSC on a 2013-14 construction schedule, Davis said.

To prepare for that event, HSC will use the regional advisory group to help spread the Science Center's work throughout the region. It already does through schools sending students to the Bemidji center and center staff doing outreach to area schools. The HSC serves 110 cities in a 23-county area in the northwest quarter of Minnesota, she said.

"In addition to serving the general public, HSC serves schools and other groups in northern Minnesota and is a regional tourist attraction," Elwell said. "It also works with other regional non-profit organizations in helping them to serve their clients. In 2009, the center served almost 30,000 visitors, many of whom travel over 150 miles to Bemidji."

The center also works with science teachers in the region, preparing teacher packages for them, Davis said. It's hard sometimes for elementary teachers of science in small towns of northwest Minnesota to receive up-do-date curricula ideas and worksheets.

"We are the only science center between Minneapolis and Winnipeg," Davis said. "And Bemidji is the largest of the regional centers to the north. It's centrally located on major highways, so it's going to naturally draw.

"We get tagged as a local entity when we're really not," he added. "That's the message we were trying to get out to the governor's office in the last couple of days."

Forming a regional advisory body will help HSC "identify more as a regional base," Davis said. "We're going to push it. We're going to push hard for at least our design money out of the next legislative session, although normally that wouldn't come up."

"Future plans for the Science Center include increased collaboration with Bemidji State University, Northwest Technical College and regional tribal colleges," Elwell said. "The new center will have an astronomy facility that will be available for use by other educational institutions and intends to work with BSU to provide research opportunities for college students and school students at middle and high school levels with particular foci on water resources and biology,"

The United States is falling behind other nations in student achievement in math and science, Davis said, causing a need to push science and math to kids at younger ages while they remain curious and attentive, he said.

"Research indicates that a majority of K-12 students have mediocre introductions to the processes and fields of science," Elwell said. "Early and pleasurable exposure to science is important in encouraging youth to enter such fields."

Elwell envisions a regional advisory group of about 20 from throughout the region, split into work groups, such as one to raise awareness of HSC in the communities and another to do development work such as raising funds for HSC construction from the entire region.

"This is going to be the first public building on the Mississippi River," Davis said. "Sen. Olson told us not to make it a block building. Put some class into it."

HSC recently added a new staff member in Jaime Thibobeaux, a University of Wisconsin at Madison graduate with a degree in wildlife biology. Elwell said she will give programs and work with children.

Elwell said people interested in volunteering for the regional advisory group can call the HSC at 444-4472 and leave their contact information. The center's Web page is at