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Science North is 'committed to seeing this through,' says CEO of Dynamic Earth expansion

Ashley Larose says changes made at organization reflect auditor general's recommendations

Criticism of the Dynamic Earth expansion project in the recently released auditor general’s annual report doesn’t tell the full story of the project’s challenges, said the organization’s CEO.

Ashley Larose, who helms Science North, which is overseeing the project, noted that the organization has been working with the auditor general’s office for the last year on recommendations that were made in the report released on Dec. 6.

“One of the things that isn’t transparent in the process is that the value-for-money audit doesn’t necessarily take into account activities that are happening at the present time,” Larose said.

“So we’ve actually made those changes 12 months ago, but because the audit is past-facing, you don’t really see that. It doesn’t really form part of their narrative.”

Chief among Auditor General Nick Stavropoulos’ criticisms is that the cost of the science centre’s expansion project had tripled to $15 million in just three years, and that the estimated date of completion had been pushed back to 2024 from 2023.

In his report, Stavropoulos cited “poor planning and ineffective project management” for the cost overruns and delays.

SEE: Poor planning, ineffective project management cited for growing costs of Dynamic Earth expansion project

He also said the project management team should have been more involved during the planning stages, including a consultant with an engineering and construction background, which could have helped with a more reliable cost estimate for the project.

Larose acknowledged the budget has changed since the project was first introduced in 2018, in part, because the organization added new components to the project to help it meet its pan-Northern mandate.

“The original budget then increased because we added Northern Ontario components, which is absolutely the right thing to do,” she said.

As the organization was planning for construction, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, which effectively stopped any development on the project, she noted. Costs then grew due to inflation.

“At the beginning of this year is when we could start activating the capital project, and that’s when we really amplified the team,” she said.

“We brought in the expertise that we needed, and so for the past 12 months, we’ve been operating with a really stellar team representing all the disciplines that need to be around the table, and so we’re really confident with where we are now.”

It’s inaccurate, she said, to suggest the project is operating at a deficit.

Instead, the organization is completing the project one phase at a time, as it secures the funds to pay for each stage. Taking this piecemeal approach is the “most fiscally responsible way possible” to complete it, Larose said, but it also prolongs the construction timeline.

“We’ve maintained a balanced cash flow throughout this whole project, which means we haven’t spent anything that has not been secured,” she said.

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In his report, Stavropoulos was also critical of the organization single-sourcing a Sudbury-area mining contractor to complete the $2-million excavation work. That same company partnered with the organization on a $1.5-million sponsorship agreement.

The report said the company was awarded the contract under an “exemption approved by the CEO without board input as Science North’s procurement policy provides unlimited purchasing authority to the CEO.”

The mining contractor was not named in the auditor general’s report.

However, it’s been publicly documented that Technica Mining of Sudbury was chosen to do the excavation work at the site, and that it had also partnered with Science North on sponsorship of the project.

Larose emphasized that those two agreements rolled out separately, with Technica signing the excavation agreement months before they signed the sponsorship agreement.

She also maintains that the organization followed all procurement guidelines properly.

“It was not a special exemption,” Larose said. “Within the broader public sector procurement bylaws, which we fall under, there are allowances for sole-sourcing.”

Technica was chosen as part of the successful bidding team during the design stage, she noted, and when it came time to award the excavation contract, it was “more effective and a better use of our investment” to have Technica do the work.

However, Larose said the organization has agreed to review its procurement guidelines to see if they can be improved.

“When those decisions were made, we were fully in alignment with the guidelines that existed,” she said. “But we are open to looking at those guidelines to make sure that if there’s any way that we can make them firmer, or if there’s any way that we can improve them, then we’ll go ahead and do that.”

The report also mentioned the organization’s plans to construction two new science centres, in Thunder Bay and Kenora, at a cost of more than $90 million.

Stavropoulos said Science North moved forward with its plans without cost-benefit analysis, with only conditional board support, and failed to seek funding before moving ahead with its plans.

Larose said that criticism was made prematurely, as the organization was still in the early stages of those plans.

The three-year schematic design phase will wrap up on Dec. 31 of this year, at which point the organization will have fully designed buildings, making way for the business planning and capital campaigns, Larose said.

“So, we completely agree: no capital has been secured, because we haven't sought any yet, because we are working on making sure that we have very detailed estimates so that when we do go to our stakeholders we have credible numbers,” she said.

“It would have been foolish for us to try and secure capital when the buildings hadn't even fully been fleshed out.”

The news from the auditor general’s report wasn’t all bad.

Stavropoulos praised Science North’s educational programming and lauded the organization for improving attendance records over the last year.

Attendance at the centre in 2022-2023 increased by 3 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, and attendance is anticipated to remain steady for the next three years, the report noted.

“One of the things that we've done really well coming out of the pandemic is listening to our community, listening to our visitors, making sure that the programs and exhibits that we're doing are what they want to see and what they want to do,” Larose said.

“And we have all kinds of plans to continue doing that and deepening that even further.”

Larose said development work on the Dynamic Earth expansion project is paused for the winter months, due to the expense, but will resume when warmer weather arrives.

The next big stage of the project will be the construction of a multimedia and multipurpose space at the end of a new drift that’s been excavated.

She’s hopeful of releasing new visuals soon that will illustrate the next stage of the project, and fundraising continues to secure additional capital for succeeding phases.

The new estimated opening date is spring 2025.

Larose said the organization will continue to work toward meeting recommendations laid out in the review, and it will report its progress to the auditor general’s office annually over the next few years.

She remains optimistic about the goal of the project, which is to educate visitors about the career opportunities in mining.

“This is really the largest investment in public education around careers and mining that our community has seen in a long time,” Larose said.

“So it's a really transformational project and we're totally committed to seeing this through.”