Tonawanda News

August 29, 2013

Challenger Center opening in Lockport

By Joyce M. Miles
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — After seven years of planning and pleading for financial backing, a Lockport-based Challenger Learning Center is all but locked in and ready for liftoff.

On Monday, directors of the nascent CLC of Orleans Niagara Erie signed a 10-year lease for space to house the center’s new home, the first floor of Harrison Place Building 1 at Washburn and Walnut streets.

Having secured a physical home, and the outer space mission simulators around which its education program is built, the only thing blocking CLC-ONE’s launch now is money. To outfit the space as an approved Challenger Learning Center, directors still need to raise about $150,000, according to Executive Director Kathy Michaels.

That’s a fraction of the original $1 million estimate to take CLC-ONE from concept to completion — the balance having been raised quietly over time, from an ongoing membership drive, donations and grants from sources including New York State and the Lockport-based Grigg-Lewis Foundation — but all along, fundraising has been a slow and arduous. Michaels is convinced that, on top of difficult economic times, the lack of a home for the center has made it a tough sell to potential donors.

Hopefully that’ll change now, and quickly, she said. The organization has been getting estimates for needed services and goods — construction of a handicap access ramp, and interior demolition work, for instance — and is approaching grant-givers, small businesses and individuals to underwrite pieces of the project’s final phase.

“It’s been a dream for so long, and we’re very close now,” CLC-ONE board member Patrick Schrader said.

Challenger Learning Centers are privately run, not-for-profit entities that promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education of K-through-12th-grade students, particularly middle school students, by running simulated space missions.

Participating school districts in a center’s licensed area — in this case, Orleans, Niagara and Erie counties — pay a program fee. In their classrooms, teachers roll out a center-approved, six-week mission “training” program, then students visit the CLC and use its simulators to carry out their mission. The objective could be to intercept a comet, replace a malfunctioning satellite over Earth, establish a base on the moon, or gather samples and data from Mars.

The idea behind the program is to plant a seed in young minds about the relevance of science and math in real life, Michaels said.

Presently, 39 CLCs are operated in the United States, all with permission from the national Challenger Center for Space Science Education. CLC-ONE would be the fifth such center in New York state; the others are in Airmont, Allegany, Manhattan and Rochester.

The center is going to Harrison Place after the City of Lockport got a state grant of $250,000 for capital improvements at Buildings 1 and 2 on Washburn Street last year. About $130,000 of the request was specifically for landing the CLC. The non-profit organization has to “match” the state money by an equal amount.

The city supports CLC-ONE’s siting here because of the various benefits to residents and the central business district, R. Charles Bell, city director of planning and development, said.

For local inner-city students, center organizers have pledged to run a free, academic tutoring-centered afterschool program. They’re also trying to woo the Lockport High School robotics team to relocate to the center.

CLC-ONE will run a corporate training program for area employers and operate a portable planetarium, two side businesses that promise to attract visitors to downtown year-round

Altogether, Bell said, a CLC is “a significant draw. It provides great opportunities for families with children of all ages. That’s something we need to continue to develop ... . Affiliation with NASA (a major sponsor of the national Challenger Center foundation) is good for Lockport, too.”

According to CLC-ONE board member Donald Stopp, some school districts in Erie County have been sending students to the Dresser Rand CLC in Allegany or the CLC of Greater Rochester, whichever is closest. Once the ONE center is up and running, by national licensing rules, those schools would be referred to it.

“The program is already recognized,” Stopp said. “We’re trying to fill a need.”

Volunteer Laura Stewart-Beach, who’s been writing grant applications for CLC-ONE, said she’s a supporter after learning studies show that students’ test scores rise with participation in Challenger Learning programs. She remembers that her son, who’s entering sixth grade at Starpoint Central School, struggled to grasp space science; and she thinks he would have gotten it more readily had instruction been hands-on, versus abstract.

The promise of CLCs is to encourage STEM competence in youths, which they’ll need to succeed as adults in our post-industrial economy, Stewart-Beach said.

“Look around: Trek is here. Yahoo! is here. The trend is toward high-tech jobs. ... There is definitely a need for this program here,” she said.

On Monday, Michaels secured promises from U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, to help connect CLC-ONE with potential funders.

Maziarz offered to contact Sam Hoyt, Empire State Development regional president, and University at Buffalo President Satish K. Tripathi, an engineer who’s also co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

The council is steering spending of the so-called “Buffalo Billion,” money pledged by the state over 10 years to advance economic development in Western New York.

While searching for grants and corporate benefactors, CLC-ONE is continuing its membership drive. To be a “lunar level” member costs $25; and new members receive five entries in a vacation-anywhere raffle to be drawn later this year. The winner gets a paid week at the Wyndham Resort of their choice anywhere in the United States, Mexico or the Caribbean. To purchase a membership, send a check to the CLC of O.N.E. at 210 Walnut St., Lockport, NY 14094.