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Science North CEO responds to auditor’s report on science centre

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Despite some critical comments from Ontario’s auditor general, the CEO of Science North wants to reassure northerners that the science centre is thriving.

In an interview with CTV Northern Ontario on Thursday, Ashley Larose pointed out that Science North has no deficit, attendance has surpassed what it was pre-pandemic and that many of the changes recommended by the audit have been implemented.

On Wednesday, acting auditor general Nick Stavropoulos said in his report that poor planning and project management led to a $10 million increase in Science North’s Go Deeper project. Initially expected to open this year, Go Deeper won’t open until sometime in 2024 and key elements of the project have been paused.

“We found that the cost overrun and delay were caused by poor planning and ineffective project management,” Stavropoulos wrote.

In response, Larose said it’s important to remember planning for Go Deeper began in 2018.

“When you consider how long this project has been in the works, it's really easy to understand how we got here,” she said.

The initial 2019 budget was $5 million, but Larose said that didn't include any of the northern Ontario components that have been added since – increasing the budget.

“When the scope expands, typically the budget expands along with it,” Larose said.

“Then of course there was a pandemic. There are very few construction projects that were tabled in 2019 that came out of the pandemic sitting at the same budget level. So certainly inflationary pressures and pandemic pressures did contribute to those overages, along with an increase in scope.”

In an interview with CTV Northern Ontario on Thursday, Science North CEO Ashley Larose pointed out that Science North has no deficit, attendance has surpassed what it was pre-pandemic and that many of the changes recommended by the audit have been implemented. (Photo from video)

She emphasized that they have “maintained a balanced cash flow on this project,” because, she said, media coverage of the report could lead some people to believe they are running a deficit.

“There is no deficit associated with this project and that's why some components of the project have been paused to allow us to be financially responsible and making sure we're not spending anything that we haven't secured,” Larose said.

“We're actually really excited to be able to share in the coming days a full visualization of what the new building is going to look like at Dynamic Earth.”

The audit also criticized plans to expand into Thunder Bay and Kenora, at an estimated cost of more than $90 million, without first doing a cost-benefit analysis.

Larose said plans to expand into the northwest have been ongoing since 2017.

“We've completed both a market assessment and a full feasibility study along with a schematic design for both the centre in Thunder Bay and Kenora,” she said.

'TO SAY THAT NO BUSINESS PLANNING WAS DONE IS INACCURATE'

“The next step of that is this full business plan, because now we know what the buildings are. We know that we can operate them sustainably and so the timing of the value-for-money audit aligned with when we were about to start this part of the process. So to say that no business planning was done is inaccurate.”

“When that full business case is complete, then that's (when) we'll … move into this next phase, which will be a capital campaign.”

One change Science North is making is in its accounting practises. The audit said the way revenue is collected makes it difficult to tell which lines of business are doing well and which are not.

“We're actually transitioning to a whole new accounting system in the New Year specifically because we had already identified that as a need,” Larose said.

“So many of the recommendations that we found within the report -- actually all of them -- we fully agreed with ... So certainly moving forward, with the complexity of the businesses that we operate and all of the variety of self-generated revenues that this organization needs to bring in, having this new accounting system in place and working along with those new parameters is going to make it easier for everybody.”

More broadly, Larose said the centre has fully recovered from the COVID pandemic, which was particularly hard on visitor-dependent institutions such as Science North.

“We are seeing very strong recovery and that speaks to the support of our stakeholders and the relationships that we have certainly with local school boards here in Sudbury and across northern Ontario,” she said.

“We've got lots of visitors in our buildings and we really do owe a big thanks to our staff, because they have really pivoted and innovated and how we serve and the programs that we're delivering and that really goes a long way to stabilizing that attendance.”

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