Grover Beach's Exploration Station science center may reopen in January

The Exploration Station in Grover Beach could reopen to the public in January, board members say.
The Exploration Station in Grover Beach could reopen to the public in January, board members say. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For more than three months, a children’s interactive science center in Grover Beach has been closed to visitors, with a red sign posted on the door.

“The Exploration Station is temporarily closed,” it reads. “Watch for us to reopen in the near future.”

Some of the center’s displays can be seen through the windows: Models of planets hang from the ceiling, and a skeleton rests under a sign reading, “Where do all the bones go?” Colorful interlocking plastic cubes, designed to inspire creating and building, are scattered haphazardly on a table.

The board of directors of the Exploration Station’s abruptly closed the facility in July to conduct a thorough review of the organization and reorganize, board President Anita Shower said at the time.

Shower hoped the science center would be closed for two months. Now, board members anticipate reopening to the public in January.

“When we got into it, we realized in order to do it correctly you had to take your time,” Shower said this past week.

However, volunteers, former staff members and parents who frequented the science center with their children still have concerns about the board’s swift decision to close, made during a closed-session meeting July 16.

The center was closed three days later, on a Saturday, while programs were still underway. The move was especially surprising because the center seemed to be building momentum by filling up programs and selling annual memberships.

The board also canceled its fourth annual “Chemistry of Cocktails” fundraiser and let go of staff, including its longtime volunteer executive director.

Since mid-July, two board members have resigned, leaving the board with eight members — one fewer than the nine people required per the organization’s bylaws.

In the meantime, a former bookkeeper for the organization, Stacy Halvorsen, pleaded no contest Tuesday to a felony theft charge in an embezzlement case that came to light about the same time that the board temporarily shuttered the facility. She will be sentenced Dec. 2.

Prosecutors allege that since March 2013, Halvorsen forged at least three checks totaling nearly $3,400. 

Her attorney, Matthew Guerrero, said Halvorsen took full responsibility and paid restitution of $7,400 immediately to the Exploration Station board. That amount includes restitution for additional checks that were not reflected in the formal charges filed by the county District Attorney’s Office.

Shower said the science center’s closure was unrelated to the embezzlement, however, and that the theft took the board members by surprise.

The South County Family Educational and Cultural Center, the Exploration Station’s umbrella nonprofit organization, reported a deficit in 2012 and 2010, but Shower said the closure was not related to any budget issues.

Since July, she said, board members have reviewed and revised financial and operating procedures and updated the organization’s bylaws.

Two other programs, Computers 4 Youth and the electronic recycling center, have remained open the past few months.

“We’re very happy for this opportunity to redo all of the paperwork and the way the Exploration Station should function,” Shower said, “because this, as everybody knows, is a community center.”

Founded in 2010

In the 1990s, local philanthropists Cliff Clark and his late wife, Mary Lee Clark, supported a goal to form a nonprofit to buy Grover Beach’s old fire station building at 867 Ramona Ave. and develop a youth facility.

A nonprofit organization, the South County Family Education and Cultural Center, was formed in 1999. In 2001, educational programs were introduced to target youths between the ages of 9 and 13 during after-school hours and vacations, according to the station’s website.

If the property is not used as a children’s center, the building would revert back to the grantor — the city of Grover Beach — according to the grant deed signed in May 2000. The building is owned by the South County Family Educational and Cultural Center, according to the county Assessor’s Office.

City Attorney Martin Koczanowicz said in an email that “temporary closure of the Exploration Station in and of itself would not be likely to be interpreted as a breach of the last condition” in the deed.

The interactive children’s science center opened in 2010, said Claude Hartman, a retired physics teacher and volunteer who built some of the exhibits. He said the organization’s small budget prevented it from making major changes to the exhibits more frequently.

The nonprofit brought in $80,953 in 2012 but reported expenses of $81,310, according to the latest tax documents filed with the IRS.

Employees included Halvorsen, who started working there in January 2012, and program director Tosha Punches, who started in July 2010. Deborah Love served as an unpaid volunteer executive director for about eight years.

The city’s specific plan for the area envisions an expanded Exploration Station complex that could include a youth arts-and-crafts center, a museum, an art gallery or theater arts center, and outdoor use areas.

Parents who frequented the center said it engaged families and children in science activities that they might not experience anywhere else on the Central Coast.

In the two months before the center closed, 30 new annual family memberships were sold, two summer robotics camps sold out and a Science 4 Girls camp was filling up, Hartman said.

Connie Wilkinson’s daughter participated in a weekly Tiny Explorers program. One week, the children became archaeologists, digging small plastic dinosaurs out of frozen blocks of ice and Jell-O.

“The kids loved it,” said Wilkinson of Pismo Beach. “It provided different things that they wouldn’t learn outside of there.”

In addition, center staff worked with Cal Poly students and professors to develop exhibit ideas, said Jennifer Jipson, a Cal Poly associate professor in child development who also has a family membership.

In 2012, Jipson and two other faculty members taught a course in which students developed exhibit ideas for the courtyard area in front of the Exploration Station. In addition, she led a Girl Scout troop that used the center as a meeting spot.

Jipson said Punches had developed inventive programming to engage children, including a Tinker and Young Maker Club.

“It was so abrupt,” she said of the science center’s closure. “Momentum was only building, and we were kind of stopping on the climb. We had students and faculty interested.

“They have plans to continue it,” she added, “which I really hope to be true, but building the trust of the people who might help it be successful could be tricky.”

Shower said the board plans to continue the same children’s programs, will maintain its relationship with Cal Poly faculty, and will rent out meeting-room space to community groups and clubs.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people and received donations from people to help with the reopening,” Shower said. She did not know how much money had been contributed, though the 5-Cities Men’s Club has given $700 to refurbish a sundial.

“The displays will stay the way they are, and we will open our arms to Cal Poly and see what else they suggest,” Shower said.

Board struggling

The board now consists of eight people: Shower, the board president; Judy Cardwell, vice president; Clint Weirick, secretary; Clarice “Corki” Henderson, temporarily filling in as treasurer; and other directors Jim Middlemist, Robert Robert, Michael Boyer, and Mark Olson. Henderson is founder Cliff Clark’s daughter.

Two board members recently removed from the website, Katy Ayer and J Johnson, have resigned, and Kathryn Glenn is on a sabbatical.

Ayer said she resigned July 15 and wasn’t privy to any discussions about the closure. She declined to say why she resigned.

Johnson, who resigned Aug. 4, said he was “kept in the dark” about what led to the closure and didn’t receive a response to his offers to help or lend advice to the board.

Johnson said he attended a board meeting July 29, after the science center closed, in which he heard about “a big elaborate plan that didn’t make sense, and thought, ‘If they don’t need me, I’m out of here.’ ”

“The employees and volunteer employee were doing a great job, I think,” he added.

Halvorsen, the bookkeeper, was laid off before information surfaced that led to her arrest in June.

Love, the former executive director, believes that Halvorsen’s actions “led the board members to lose faith in us and lose sight of our mission.”

Halvorsen could not be reached for comment.

Top-to-bottom review

Initially, Shower said, people were upset that the science center closed.

“But people have to understand that we took on a huge task,” she said of the board’s review. “We started from top to bottom, and we’re almost at the bottom now.”

Various board members each took an area of the center — such as the science center, the electronic recycling program and maintenance needs — and are working on an updated budget and documents detailing how each part should function.

She said the science center needed to be closed because “we couldn’t concentrate on the science center and programs while we’re doing this massive review.”

The board in April canceled the annual fundraising event, normally held in November, to the surprise of staff members and volunteers.

Shower said the 2013 fundraiser only brought in $6,000, which was not enough to make up for the time that staff and volunteers spent on the event.

“I’m looking for $30,000, for the amount of effort we put into it,” she said.

On July 19, when the board closed the science center, it also laid off Punches, telling her that it could no longer afford to pay her, she said in an email. Love was also let go, though she said she never received a letter from the board.

When asked why staff was let go and not involved in the review, Shower said, “We wanted to do it ourselves.”

“The board really wanted to know how everything was working and what we could do to make it better; that was all,” Shower said. “We’re all professionals. We have a lot of smart people who could do this, and we preferred to do it ourselves.”

In an email, Punches said she was shocked and disappointed by the decision to close the science center.

“I would have gladly volunteered to see the doors stay open and the Exploration Station continue its programs,” Punches wrote. “I know that many of the volunteers felt the same way.”

Hartman said he has not been in contact with the board. Mike Sullivan, who volunteered as exhibits coordinator, said he has had limited contact with the board since the closure.

“The exhibits team agreed that it would be best if I remained in contact with the board so that I can pass along institutional knowledge (like where the power switches are located and how to repair the exhibits),” he wrote in an email. “I plan to see how things turn out after the reorganization and would help if I’m happy with the results.”

Shower said the board plans to hire an executive director for the South County Family Educational and Cultural Center to oversee all of the programs, including the science center.

They also want to hire a manager for the science center and a volunteer coordinator.

Shower said she didn’t know whether Punches or Love would be involved in the future.

“When we put it (the jobs) out to the community, if they are interested, they should fill out an application or give us a letter of interest,” she said.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune