Risë Hanifan addresses Buckhannon City Council at its Nov. 16 meeting about adding a science center to the SYCC multipurpose building addition. / (Photos by Katie Kuba)

Resident suggests expanding Stockert project to include educational science center

BUCKHANNON – An Upshur County resident on Thursday encouraged Buckhannon City Council to “dream bigger” and revise its plan for the Stockert Youth & Community Center’s multipurpose addition.

Risë Hanifan, executive director of the Buckhannon Community Theatre, attended council as a private citizen to urge city council to construct a larger multipurpose building that would include a STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – hub that would look something like a miniature version of the Clay Center in Charleston or the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

Hanifan said she’s been discouraged by Upshur County Schools and the subsequent takeover.

“We have great teachers, great staff, but I am really concerned that our children are falling way behind,” Hanifan said. “Our county used to be a county to contend with. Our academics were at the top of the list, and now we’re at the bottom.”

“I worry for our college-bound students,” she added. “How can we help them? I am really grateful for programs like Stockert that are there filling in gaps with the after-school program and tutoring, and I have read that Stockert desperately needs more space for this purpose.”

Hanifan said she’s read that a basketball court is a centerpiece of the new multipurpose building, but the facility could have much more potential.

“We have all manner of sports that kids can get involved in, and activity is vital to a child’s development, but what we don’t have is opportunities for students to engage in STEM learning outside of school – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math,” Hanifan said.

Hanifan said there are a multitude of grants for STEM-related learning programs and projects.

“How incredible and forward-thinking would it be for Buckhannon to add a facility for STEM learning as part of Stockert?” she asked. “With the right grant writers, we could get all kinds of funding for a project like that, and I think you would get a lot of buy-in from parents with young children … we could even dream big and have a science center that would bring people in from all over the state – like a smaller version of the Clay Center or Carnegie Science Center.”

“This is a big dream, but Buckhannon is a place of big dreams; look at what you all have created in our downtown area,” Hanifan said, citing Create Buckhannon’s community improvement efforts, the renovation of the Colonial Arts Center and the hosting of the 2023 World Association of Marching Showbands Championship.

Pictured, from left, are City Recorder Randy Sanders, Buckhannon Mayor Robbie Skinner and Councilman Jack Reger at city council’s Nov. 16 meeting.

Buckhannon Mayor Robbie Skinner said he agreed “100 percent” with Hanifan’s comments and noted that while grants abound for science and educational facilities, grants for recreational complexes are increasingly hard to come by.

City Recorder Randy Sanders said the Stockert project addition, as it’s currently contemplated, had not yet been put out to bid locally, despite the city having received an estimated cost from a firm in Indiana, so the cost is still unknown.

“We will know better [when the bids come back] what our capabilities are for the project that was designed,” Sanders said. “What you brought forth are some great ideas for possible pivots if we can’t do this or do that, but I just want the public to know that we are so close to putting it out to bid, and I hope everyone has patience with us.”

Councilman David McCauley said Hanifan’s concerns should be a matter taken up by the Stockert Youth & Community Center Board and asked Skinner to place the issue on the next agenda of the SYCC Board for consideration.

“Maybe coming out of that Stockert meeting, we could have a public forum,” McCauley said. “When we launched the capital campaign in 2016, we very purposefully referred to the new building as a multipurpose building; we were opposed to calling it a gymnasium.”

McCauley said it’s a misconception to view the proposed addition as merely “a $4 or $5 million [facility] just to have another place to play basketball.”

“That’s not what this is strictly about,” he said to Hanifan. “In fact, when Joyce Stockert died nearly 30 years ago, she specified in her will that it would be for ‘recreational and educational and other purposes,’ so what you’re advancing is very much in keeping with Joyce Stockert’s intentions. I think that we need to have a bigger conversation about this after the first of the year, and I hope that you will participate.”

Hanifan said she would be glad to participate, and Skinner agreed to place the matter on an SYCC Board meeting agenda in 2024.  

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