NWA Space, Lowell Partner For Science Center

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LOWELL (KFSM) — Dr. Kathrine Auld had been campaigning for years for a planetarium in Northwest Arkansas when someone finally told her, "if you build it, they will come."

"It was really a light bulb moment for me," said Auld, an astronomy and geology professor at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

"Somebody finally said to me, 'no one will build one unless you do it.' So I started talking to other educators and business people about building a planetarium."

On Tuesday, (April 17) the Lowell City Council agreed to partner with the non-profit NWA Space to build a science center at Kathleen Johnson Memorial Park.

NWA Space, which Auld oversees as board chairplans for the 20-acre facility to include a planetarium, an observatory, a robotics lab and classrooms.

“The vision is a campus — spread across an estimated 120,000-square-feet under roof, with additional acreage for outdoor green classrooms, with fully stocked exploration spaces offering both demonstrations and hands-on learning opportunities in physics, chemistry, and engineering," Auld said.

“We want to engage, teach and inspire all ages.”

The center's showpiece will be an enormous antique telescope, currently undergoing restoration in Bentonville. It was built in 1909 for Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, Penn., and brought down to Northwest Arkansas last year, Auld said.

A Stonehenge recreation is planned for outside the building, which will link the science of ancient cultures with the present, according to NWA Space.

“One of my favorite features of the outdoor facilities will be a solar system walk, which is a scale model of the solar system large enough to walk to the various planets,” said Clint Branham, vice chair of the board of NWA Space.

The initial planning phase for the center is underway, and NWA Space will meet soon with the city's park committee to discuss a potential lease agreement and other logistics.

A capital fundraising campaign is also planned, with Auld saying the project should take two years to complete.

The 99-acre park at 307 Bellview Road is the perfect site for a project like this, said Lowell Mayor Eldon Long, because it's consistent with the park's mission.

Long said Leonard Johnson approached him in 2011 about donating the land he and his wife, Kathleen, had owned since 1963. Johnson asked that the park be named after his wife and be used only by non-profit, community-minded groups.

"To have a facility like this in our region is remarkable," Long said. "And it's huge for us that it will be anchored in Lowell. It will be educational but also fun."

Auld agreed, saying Lowell is a perfect spot for the center because the city is centrally located in Northwest Arkansas.

"We wanted to do something that was regional," Auld said. "And a great way to do that is to be stuck in the middle."

Auld said the demand is high for a planetarium in Northwest Arkansas. "Star parties" hosted by Sugar Creek Astronomy Club often draw hundreds to Hobbs State Park -- even on cloudy nights.

Auld said park officials have told her the club's gatherings are the largest regular, reoccurring event at any park across the state.

To learn more about NWA Space and its mission, visit its Facebook page or website at nwa.space.

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