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Port Discover to close; board chair cites lack of funding

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Hunter Staples, 3, dressed in an astronaut costume, uses a stethoscope to check the "heartbeat" of a doll, while playing at Port Discover, Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 28, 2018. His great-grandmother, Frances Johnson, is seen in the background. Port Discover board members announced Monday the hands-on science center for kids will be closing on Friday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Port Discover — Elizabeth City’s hands-on science center for kids — will close this Friday because of a lack of revenue, the educational nonprofit’s board of directors announced this week.

Russ Haddad, chairman of Port Discover’s board, said Tuesday the abrupt closure is “hard to explain,” but ultimately the children’s science center lacked the fundraising and sponsorships it needed for operating revenues.

Though Port Discover has won significant grants over the years, including from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, those grants were restricted to specific equipment purchases and programming. They could not be spent on basic operating expenses, he said.

Port Discover had provided hands-on science instruction and activities to children in the Elizabeth City area since it first opened in May 2006.

One of those children, 3-year-old Hunter Staples, was at Port Discover on Tuesday with his great-grandma, Frances Johnson.

“He’s going to be upset when I tell him we can’t come back,” Johnson said as Hunter played.

Port Discover has offered Hunter a better, more enriching atmosphere than just staying home, Johnson said. She noted he was playing with a stethoscope there after seeing a doctor use one on TV.

Haddad, director of community and economic engagement at Elizabeth City State University, acknowledged that Port Discover’s board “didn’t go out and fundraise like we used to.” Port Discover has been without a director since June, when Pat Wardell left the job after less than a year, and board members have been too busy to fundraise themselves.

Asked if he blamed Wardell for not fundraising more, Haddad said, “He could’ve done better; we could’ve done better as a board.”

Noting he helped create Port Discover more than a decade ago, Haddad called it a “strange, twisted irony” that he returned as the center’s board chairman only last month — just in time to oversee Port Discover’s closure.

“It really is heart-breaking,” he said of the closing.

Port Discover board member Dan Smith, a communications official at Mid-Atlantic Christian University, said he credited Wardell with making the board fully aware of the financial issues.

“I believe he’s the one who said we had a problem,” Smith said.

He declined to elaborate, but said the board and Wardell also had “irreconcilable differences” about how to proceed.

Smith said Port Discover will have to return some grant funding to the state and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the latter of which provided a three-year, $180,000 grant in 2015 to expand Port Discover’s science lab.

Haddad and Smith also said Port Discover is reaching out to local educational institutions that would like donated equipment; Camden County Schools is interested in Port Discover’s robotics equipment, Haddad noted.

Smith also said Port Discover will look to sell its building, which is at 611 East Main Street.

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