Lowell OKs group to build science center

Construction on 10 acres of park includes two phases

Posted: April 21, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Science center location
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Science center location

LOWELL — A science center planned for Kathleen Johnson Memorial Park will draw visitors from across Northwest Arkansas and beyond, Mayor Eldon Long said.

“It’s going to be unique,” Long said. “I’m excited about it, and I hope everyone else is excited about it.”

NWA Space, a nonprofit organization made up of local science and space enthusiasts, received the City Council’s approval this week to move forward on a plan for a long-term lease of 20 acres in the park about a mile west of Interstate 49.

Center construction is planned in two phases, with both phases covering 10 acres, according to a news release from NWA Space.

Phase one will include an observatory about 50 feet in diameter to house a 36-foot-long refracting telescope NWA Space received last year from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, according to the release.

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The first phase also will include offices, storage areas and a classroom for summer camps and demonstrations. Outside the building will be a recreation of the famous Stonehenge monument and a scale model of the solar system large enough people may walk from planet to planet.

A 100-seat planetarium will be part of the second phase of construction. Robotics labs and Science on a Sphere — described as a “giant animated globe” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — will be among the other phase two features.

The facility all together will be about 120,000 square feet. The NWA Space board has begun developing a plan for the center and has solicited proposals from a number of architectural firms. The board soon will launch a fundraising campaign, according to the release.

Katherine Auld, NWA Space board chairman, said phase one is expected to cost about $10 million. The cost of phase two is unclear because of the complexity of the building, Auld wrote in a text message.

“We should have a better idea once we complete the master plan,” she wrote.

The group’s agreement with the city mandates the planning phase be completed within six months and construction be finished two years after that, according to Auld. That puts completion of phase one at no later than the fall of 2020.

Lowell is a “perfect match” for the group’s vision because it is in the center of Northwest Arkansas, and the park is close to both the Razorback Greenway and Interstate 49, Auld said in the news release.

Kathleen Johnson Memorial Park, 307 Bellview Road, consists of 99 acres given to the city in 2014 by Leonard Johnson. Johnson proposed the land be turned into a park that may be used only by nonprofit, community-minded organizations. He requested the park be named after his wife, Kathleen, who died in 2010, according to the release. Leonard Johnson died in 2015.

The city’s second fire station is set to open on the park property this spring. A new Lowell Historical Museum, a veterans memorial, an amphitheater and a farmers market are some other projects planned for the park, Long said.

“I’m looking forward to the development and build-out of the park,” he said. “I think it’s important not only to the citizens of Lowell, but other surrounding communities that want to take advantage of that park and the programs we develop out there.”

A committee oversees projects at the park. NWA Space will visit with the park committee to discuss terms of a contract. The council then will consider approving the contract, Long said.

Beth Pesnell, an elementary and middle school math and science curriculum specialist for the Rogers School District, said a science center will bring to life for visitors the concepts they heard about in school.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Pesnell said. “Anything like this is going to help foster curiosity and interest in science, something we’re trying to promote across the country. It’s going to help cultivate that idea of lifelong learning across the community.”

Pesnell grew up in Bentonville. She recalled her only experiences with planetariums as a child came during family vacations out of state. Not all kids have the opportunity to go on such trips, so to have the science center in their backyard will be great for them, she said.

“It will be to the science community what Crystal Bridges is to our arts and humanities community,” she said.

Auld, an adjunct faculty member at Northwest Arkansas Community College, started NWA Space in 2014 with the dream of bringing a science center and planetarium to the area. The group’s board includes educators, Walmart employees and others.

NWA Space took a major step last year when it acquired its 109-year-old telescope from Swarthmore College. The telescope is tied with another device as the sixth-largest refractor in the United States. It is being stored near the Eighth Street Market in Bentonville while undergoing restoration.

Web watch

Visit www.nwa.space for more information on NWA Space and to learn about volunteer opportunities or to donate to the group.

Dave Perozek can be reached at dperozek@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWADaveP.