When the first group of schoolchildren walked through the doors of the splashy, new Imagination Station last week, it was the staff who greeted the kids with applause.
"It was just one of those emotional moments - after all we've been through," said Anna Kolin, who worked for the former COSI and has returned as communications and public relations manager for the downtown science center now known as the Imagination Station.
Indeed it's people - lots of people - that the Imagination Station hopes to see when it opens to the public at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The science center has been mothballed for nearly two years because of budget troubles.
With the approval of a five-year, 0.17-mill operating levy last year by Lucas County voters, officials involved with resurrecting the science center say they believe the Imagination Station will have plenty to keep people coming and coming back - a new look, new exhibits, traveling exhibits, and special events.
Executive Director Lori Hauser calls it the "wow" factor.
She said she wants to make sure the Imagination Station has plenty of it.
"You have to have that vibrant, ever-changing experience so that people come in and say, 'This is so cool,'•" she said.
Sheneique McElrath of Toledo and her son Torrin Tyree, 5, hold on as a simulator at the Imagination Station helps them experience how it feels to drive a race car.
Since May, the center has undergone $1 million in renovations thanks to a grant from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission. With new paint, floor coverings, signage, and exhibits, it has a decidedly clean, bright look.
Visitors familiar with the former COSI will see a number of the center's most popular exhibits - the high-wire bicycle, the human yo-yo, and others - but there are plenty of new things to see and do, and Ms. Hauser said the center is committed to bringing in different traveling exhibits a couple times a year.
The first one, Circus!, from the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, was quite a hit with youngsters invited to check out Imagination Station last week before the center opens to the public. The exhibit starts with a sampling of faux poop from various circus animals - a natural curiosity for kids.
"It sounds kind of gross, but kids want to know these things," Ms. Kolin said.
Visitors can learn about sideshows and try to climb into a glass box used by an adult-sized contortionist. They can try on costumes and pretend to be a strong man or clown. They also can learn a lot about the science that makes circus acts work.
Eleven-year-old Noah Materni looked a little uneasy as he was harnessed and hoisted into the air on the elastic acrobatic exhibit.
With coaching from an Imagination Station staff member, he began kicking his legs and eventually threw his hands back, pulled his knees up, and did a flip in the air. Everyone watching applauded.
"It was fun," Noah, a fifth grader at Birmingham Elementary, said as he put his shoes back on. "I was feeling excited, and now I'm going to walk the tight rope."
His classmate, Jaymie Williams, beat him to that.
While she was secured in a safety harness, she stepped very carefully along the high wire before attempting a quick twirl. She described the experience as "scary."
"I was thinking I was going to fall, but I knew I wasn't," Jaymie said afterward.
Mind over matter, conquering fears - Imagination Station teaches kids about psychology as well as the physical and natural sciences.
Teri Fischer, a fifth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School, said she's excited to see the science center reopen.
"I think it's neat because first of all, they've got lots of room to move around in," she said. "They've also got little pieces of all different kinds of science to experience, and the hands-on activities are a very crucial part of learning."
David Waterman, chairman of the science center's board, said the Imagination Station wants to give kids a science lesson carefully disguised as a "fun and amazing experience."
He likened the science center to a destination spot such as Cedar Point where "you have to refurbish it periodically to keep it fresh and keep people coming back."
"The gate admissions are important to us, and as things get old and stale, even if they're functioning properly, your admissions drop off and that kind of starts the spiral downward, especially if you can't fund the capital improvements to restore it," Mr. Waterman said.
A portion of the levy proceeds will be set aside for new exhibits, and the center has gotten considerable support from local corporations.
Among the new exhibits scheduled to open early in the new year is a Be a Sportscaster experience sponsored by Buckeye Cablesystem that will allow visitors to try their talents at announcing a local sports event, Ms. Hauser said.
First Solar Inc. and BP LLC's Toledo Refinery are working with the Imagination Station on a new exhibit called the Energy Factory, she said, and the center is now in talks with area hospitals about a health exhibition.
The voter-approved levy will provide a solid financial base to operate the center, Mr. Waterman said, which is expected to have a $3.5 million annual operating budget. The levy was projected to generate about $1.5 million a year, although dropping property valuations are expected to reduce that slightly.
Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she's encouraged that Lucas County voters decided to give COSI another try. "I love it. It's got many pluses," Ms. Wozniak said. "It's certainly wonderful for our children to connect with science. It's great for the community as we brand our new image, and I love it for what it adds to the downtown neighborhood in our efforts to revitalize with the new arena."
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