Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH – It’s noon Friday and only one family has visited the Emerald Coast Science Center – and they were members, so it was free.

The 8,000-square-foot interactive children’s science museum tucked off of Memorial Parkway Southwest has made no revenue since it opened that morning, said director Diane Fraser. She doesn’t expect it to.

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Because of the coronavirus outbreak, Fraser estimates the Center has lost $109,000 in revenue from admission for now nonexistent field trips because of school closures and canceled tourists’ and locals’ visits during spring break and summer.

“How are we going to generate revenue?” Fraser said. “How are we going to keep staff? We’ve cut our staff hours so far back, I am seriously worried about losing some of the key personnel who have brought us as far as we’ve come in the past five years. Now it’s like we’re starting over from scratch.”

And she says this from an empty science museum.

The Emerald Coast Science Center has to pay bills, staff and insurance. The Paycheck Protection Program helped the organization survive the more than two-month closure, but it needs admissions and donors to stay open, Fraser said.

Fraser wants to make the public aware of how badly museums were impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. She referred to a letter several museum organizations collaborated on writing to Congress, asking for economic relief legislation to help them survive.

Preliminary data from an American Alliance of Museums survey shows that nearly 20% of museums face a significant risk of closing permanently, according to the letter. It also states that nationwide, museums lose at least $33 million a day because of closures.

“What they’re finding is preliminary data that shows museums are at risk of permanently closing because of the pandemic,” Fraser said. “They’ve had to be closed and lost all of their revenue streams. People aren’t going to museums right now – a lot of people aren’t even going out, so no admissions. And a lot of museums rely on field trips.”

Fraser believes what’s happening to museums, including the Emerald Coast Science Center, and small businesses in this pandemic will shape the future of the community – and not for the better.

“It’s really scary,” Fraser said. “I think it’s really important we talk about this. What’s going to happen is when we come out of this – and we will come out of this – all of a sudden people are going to look around and go, ‘Hey, wait, where is my museum? Where is that place I had on my bucket list? Where is that place that when I was a kid I went and had a great experience and I wanted to go again as an adult or take my family?’”

Since the pandemic started, the Center has added more outdoor exhibits to help people maintain social distancing and feel safer. It also instated a mandatory mask requirement for all visitors.

Among the new exhibits is an outdoor exhibit about the science behind boating – featuring a pontoon donated from Legendary Marine – an exhibit about sea turtles, a dino(saur) dig and a lionfish exhibit featuring live lionfish. More are in the works.

“I have the absolute best product I’ve ever had,” Fraser said. “I just don’t have anyone to come and see it.”

Fraser believes in the power of a museum; she believes in the power of the Emerald Coast Science Center. The role of a museum in a community is irreplaceable.

“Museums house our cultural history,” Fraser said. “They tell us who we are. They bind us together – as in, what shared experiences do we have in this community? What’s important to this community? They allow families to learn together. Whether it’s reinforcing something a child learned in a classroom or finding something of interest or it’s something you stop and look at and go, ‘I haven’t thought about it this way.’ That’s what museums do.”

The Center has two fundraisers in the works. One is a 16-month calendar featuring photos of the variety of animals that live in the facility, such as snakes, birds and a hedgehog.

“We were trying to find 16 businesses that would be willing to pay $750 so they could be the sponsor of the month,” Fraser said. “I sent out 15 emails to sponsors from the past. I haven’t heard back from a single person.”

The other fundraiser is through a crowd funding platform called give lively, which will launch this weekend. If people can’t donate a large amount of money, Fraser hopes people will consider a small amount.

With a $10 donation from each of the Center’s 7,000 Facebook followers, they could get through this, she said. Fraser jokingly calls this theory her “George Bailey moment,” in reference to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“The whole community came together – and it wasn’t huge donations,” Fraser said. “It was these tiny, cleaning out the coins in the cushion of my couch type of thing. That’s kind of what I hope happens. It took us five plus years to get to where we are now. I’d hate to see that all just disappear.”

The Emerald Coast Science Center is located at 31 SW Memorial Parkway. Hours will vary. Masks are required. For more information, visit ECScience.org or Facebook.com/emcoastscictr.

The Center offers Creature Features, a chance to meet the Animal Ambassadors, at 10:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through Sept. 4 in the Outdoor Amphitheater.