The Jewel of Sudbury: Science North

By Patrica McCauley - from The Big Frame, Fall 1995

Bigframe2.jpg (33136 bytes)Take one community geographically remote from its home province’s power and money base. Add an environment scarred by turn-of-the-century industrial pollution and early logging practices, plus an economy dependent on the whims of international supply and demand. The end product was the regional municipality of Sudbury 25 years ago. Located in the northern region of the province of Ontario, 240 miles from the provincial capital of Toronto, Sudbury seemed an unlikely candidate to become an international tourist destination.

Thriving Center

But times change, and today Sudbury is a center not only of tourism but of education, government, medicine, and commerce in northern Ontario. Even the region’s landscape has been transformed back to green, thanks to an innovative industry- government partnership that saw the planting of its 2-millionth tree seedling last year.

11.jpg (39180 bytes)The jewel of Sudbury’s hospitality industry is Science North, a glistening stainless steel science center and Imax theater, which overlooks a seven-mile expanse of fresh water lake and trees as far as the eye can see.

Science North’s four attractions – a science center, Imax theater, and industrial bus tour – now record close to 455,000 admissions each year. This is a remarkable achievement in a community of only 165,000 residents, but what is even more remarkable is the story of how this community pulled together to completely transform its image.

Founded in the 1800s, Sudbury sits on one of the world’s largest known deposits of copper-nickel ore. Giant nickel producers Inco Limited and Falconbridge Limited were founders of the local economy, and they remain its cornerstones.

In 1977, a decline in world nickel markets prompted a drastic downsizing at the mines. Thousands of jobs were lost that year and in years to follow. It became clear that Sudbury could no longer depend on the nickel market to keep its economy afloat.

In 1980, community leaders accepted a grand from Inco Limited to complete a conceptual study of a science center for northern Ontario. Capital donations soon followed.

In January 1981, Inco Limited committed $5 million (CND) – the largest single corporate donation to a community project in Canadian history. Falconbridge Limited was next with $1 million. And in May 1981, the province of Ontario announced a $10 million capital grant, paving the way for a start to construction.

Science North opened its doors June 19, 1984. Since then, more than 2.2 million people have experienced the science center’s exhibits and programs. Science North attracts more than twice the number of visitors of any other tourist attraction in northern Ontario, and its popularity is growing thanks to the drawing power of its new Imax theater.

Change is Vital

fin-whale.jpg (75181 bytes)"Continuous change is vital to the success of our operation," says Science North chief executive officer Jim Marchbank. "We’re isolated from major urban centers. Our primary market, within a two-hour driving distance of Sudbury, contains only 240,000 residents. That means we rely heavily on repeat visitation to sustain our numbers outside the summer tourist season."

Drawing a loyal audience translates into a year-round program of special events, guest speakers, new and improved exhibits, and major attractions. All this takes money, and like cultural institutions everywhere, Science North remains keenly aware of its limited financial resources.

Science North operates with an annual budget of $7.5 million and 75 full-time staff. Part-time staffing peaks at 200 for the summer tourist trade, and operations are assisted year-round by a team of 300 volunteers. Like its counterparts elsewhere in the province of Ontario, Science North receives an annual operating subsidy paid from provincial coffers. Economic realities, however, are reducing government subsidies everywhere, and Science North is not an exception.

"We have anticipated cutbacks in government spending," says Marchbank. "To prepare for this, we’ve been building partnerships with the public and private sectors. Our continued success hinges on capital investments that will generate operating income to sustain us in the future."

Enter IMAX

mctv-atr.jpg (45454 bytes)It was with this promise in mind that Science North approached the provincial government for funding to build northern Ontario’s first and only Imax theater. The science center’s commitment was twofold: first, that the theater would open on time for Science North’s 10th anniversary, and second, that it would become a profit center to support the attraction’s science programs.

On July 1, 1993, the province announced a #3.6 million grand and loan package for the theater’s total $5.5 million capital cost. Science North, in turn, lived up to its commitment. Construction began shortly after the funding announcement and was completed for the science center’s 10th birthday on June 19, 1994. Total time elapsed? Ten months- including four months of a brutally cold Canadian winter.

The Science North Imax Theater premiered with The Dream is Alive. By the theater’s first anniversary, revenues had surpassed the $1.25 million mark. A pre-opening peak attendance forecast of 177,000 was easily met and exceeded. As of June 19, 1995, close to 190,000 people had attended the theater, and science center officials are predicting even higher numbers in its second year.

"We commissioned an independent survey of our immediate market four months after the theater’s opening," says theater manager Chloe Gordon. "The results told us that 97 percent of Sudbury respondents were aware of the theater and 89 percent plan to attend. Of respondents within a two-hour drive to Sudbury, 79 percent said they planned to attend the theater, but only 12 percent had actually done so.

"This means there is still a very large, very interested market to draw from, and we’re working with community partners to ensure that Sudbury enjoys the theater’s full economic potential."

Spread The Word

lobby1.jpg (64972 bytes)Community partnerships include marketing. Cooperative agreements in the theater’s first year netted $450,000 in free promotions on print, television, and radio. The theater’s lead corporate sponsor, with a $250,000 combined cash and service donation, is MCTV, BBS Ontario Inc., northeastern Ontario’s regional television network.

"We’re fortunate to enjoy the support of almost every media outlet in northeastern Ontario," says Science North marketing manager Leslie Stanford. "We’re also working with northern dairies, fast-food chains, and the regional office of Pepsi Cola Canada Beverages to extend our marketing reach through coupons and flyers.

"We’re now concentrating on packaging the Imax experience with Sudbury hotels and motels for our primary and secondary markets. Our Rolling Stones: At the Max package, for example, included overnight accommodations, dinner at the Science North restaurant, admission to our science center, a daytime Imax Film, and a ticket to At the Max."

Science North launched a successful $750,000 community fund-raising campaign in October 1993 to match the theater’s capital cost. Donors ranged from corporations like MCTV to small businesses and individuals who pledged funds in exchange for a plaque on a theater seat or a hand print on the new lobby wall.

The result of this fund-raising effort is a 200-seat facility with a higher than average audience-to-screen ratio. With an Imax screen 72 feet wide by 53 feet high, every seat in the Science North theater is the "best in the house."

Firsthand Look

lobby3.jpg (39170 bytes)Science North glassed its projection booth to give audiences a firsthand look at the Imax projector. Attached directly to the theater is a new main entrance and ticket sales lobby, which serves both Imax film and science center customers. Service includes a 12-hour-a-day telephone box office, which generates a large proportion of ticket sales.

The new Imax theater also offered Science North a golden opportunity to increase the center’s self-generated operating revenues by maximizing the potential of its food service division, consisting of a cafeteria, restaurant, banquet facilities, and a new theater concession stand.

With the introduction of Imax films during evening hours, science center hours were extended from an eight-hour operation to 14 hours. To capitalize on the evening market, officials packaged evening double bills with dinner at the center’s restaurant. In just one year, 6,000 Imax dinner packages were sold for gross revenues of $180,000. Sales of virtually all dinner packages are closed by telephone.

"The new Imax theater and the acquisition of our food services division has increased our annual operating budget form $5.4 million to more than $7.5 million," says Marchbank. "This is a remarkable example of success through self-generated revenue, and we will do even more."

Into the Future

Science North plans to add a motion simulator to its operations. The center test marketed a mobile simulator during the March school holiday of 1995 (The Big Frame, Summer 1995). Based on this unit’s enormous popularity – 10,800 riders in just nine days – the science center predicts a permanent simulator will generate a long-term source of additional revenue.

voyages.jpg (55624 bytes)The center is continuing to work to strengthen its position as a community focal point in Sudbury and as an educational resource for all of northern Ontario, Marchbank notes.

The first is of benefit to both Science North and the community at large," he says. "We’re already the site of local celebrations like Canada Day, New Year’s eve, and an annual winter carnival. We offer family-oriented activities. At the same time, we appeal to single adults through venues like the Rolling Stones: At the Max and through our evening Imax film and dinner packages."

As an education resource, Science North is mandated by its provincial government to ensure that its programs and services are accessible to all residents of northern Ontario. Science North transports custom-designed exhibits and programs by road, rail, and air to approximately 65,000 participants each year.

This achievement is more impressive given northern Ontario’s vast geography – an area of 344,700 square miles for just 822,500 residents. By comparison, France has a population of 52 million residing in a country of only 210,000 square miles.

The science center continues to develop new education programs, using Imax films as a springboard. In the fall of 1994, for example, center staff created original science exhibits and school programs based on the human performance theme of To the Limit. This fall, staff will use the Imax film Beavers to launch an extensive new exhibit area, which will include live beavers and complementary habitat.