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Powerhouse Science Center introduces improved vision for early child care and education

Declining birthrates and costs of raising children motivators for revised master plan
The Powerhouse Science Center near 12th Street and Camino del Rio is revising its vision as a community learning resource for young children. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The 6,000-square-feet exhibition space at the Powerhouse Science Center between the Animas River and Camino del Rio has served the facility well since it opened in 2011. But the combination of aging galleries, stalled developments and demographic changes in Durango have caused the Powerhouse to rethink its role.

In a presentation to Durango City Council this week, Susor said the Powerhouse’s purpose is unclear to some members of the community. Who is the science center actually for?

Aging exhibits appear to be geared toward 11-year-olds and aren’t as engaging to visitors as they were 12 years ago, he said. The size of the gallery space is limited for a science center and restricts the number of people the Powerhouse can serve.

Connection to Durango’s central business district and accessibility to the Powerhouse is also of concern, he said. The Powerhouse could offer a “world class” riverfront experience, but feedback from the community is needed to realize that potential.

And a downward trending population is worrying to Susor. He said the birthrate in Durango School District 9-R has dropped by one-third in the last eight years, resulting in a shrinking percentage of the community with young children.

Shannon Bingham, president of Western Demographics Inc., said the last highest birth year for mothers who live in Durango School District 9-R was 2007 with 423 births. irths have declined to 271 in 2022.

Since the Powerhouse Science Center’s opening in 2011, $6.5 million has been invested into it, said Jeff Susor, current director. Future site plans for the science center include installation of electric vehicle chargers, improved signage and more investments in the front plaza for use as a public space. (Durango Herald file)

He said Millennials and Generation Z-aged people are having smaller families across the nation. The costs of housing and raising young families contribute to where families move, and families are having fewer children in higher cost housing markets.

“In general, across the United States, we’re going to be looking at smaller families for quite some time,” he said.

Susor said other challenges include the stalled development of an underpass at 12th Street and Camino del Rio, also known as the Camino Crossing, because it makes the facility harder to access than it could be.

“The delay in looking at the underpass project, the lack of co-development alongside the powerhouse – as beautiful and great as the location is – we’re pretty cut off from the central business district, which just causes challenges for drawing an audience and how we serve the community,” he said.

To address the challenges and position itself to better serve the community, the Powerhouse set out to rebrand itself and redefine what it wants to be.

“The Powerhouse in Southwest Colorado is empowering curious young learners through interactive experiences, discovery and play with the vision of building a community of curious, capable and science-literate problem-solvers,” he said.

Susor said the way the Powerhouse can implement five focus areas outlined in its new master plan is by identifying ways to better support children, especially preschool-age kids and younger, when families struggle with the costs and availability of early child care.

He said City Council has maintained a focus on increasing its inventory of affordable housing and the affordability of child care is another piece of that puzzle.

“We have incredible strengths in our parks and rec system and in the community to support elementary and older kids, but very few spaces that support those youngest learners,” he said.

Ultimately, if the community doesn’t address the dropping birthrate and changing demographics in Durango, those trends will continue against the city’s goal of maintaining a “vibrant, multigenerational community,” he said.

In an interview with The Durango Herald, Susor said if Durango is at risk of becoming full of “empty-nesters” and retirees, the counteraction is to make the city a special place to raise a family by “creating experiences that delight kids and make this a spot that you want to keep a family.”

“We’re (the Powerhouse) supposed to be that space and that’s what we’re trying to do, is to really create that special space for informal learning and play,” he said.

Animas High School students and area professionals network during a Vision on the Future of Work conference at the Powerhouse Science Center in 2020. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Powerhouse aims to develop indoor and outdoor spaces with young children in mind, and to open a licensed child care center with up to two classrooms, he said. The organization is interested in partnering with other early childhood education providers with greater access to learning spaces that support gross motor skills and other fundamental developmental skills. It also wants to develop programs to “support new parents and put them on a successful path as they bring children into the world.”

Efforts could include museum-led educational programs; summer camps, after-school programs and other activities to keep children curious when they are outside of school. He said he wants to partner with the San Juan Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and Durango School District 9-R to provide kids with more opportunities to explore their passions and build strong resumes that will enable them to pursue secondary education.

He said programs like FIRST Lego League, Destination Imagination and science fairs can serve those ends.

The Powerhouse will advocate for the 12th Street and Camino del Rio underpass, which stands to increase accessibility to the science center and diversify the people and families who visit it, he said. He wants to ensure parking spaces are in good supply so parking doesn’t become a limiting factor for prospective visitors, and to incorporate the science center’s riverfront with city and school district transit routes.

cburney@durangoherald.com



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