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This article was published 25/7/2011 (3548 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Residents of a scientific research facility on the outskirts of Churchill can finally enjoy fresh air without the risk of becoming a snack for a passing polar bear.
After spending 35 years in a concrete bunker designed to last two decades at most, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has moved into a $19-million new building that offers residents the ability to be outside without risking exposure to the world's most dangerous carnivore.
The centre, located at a former rocket range about 23 kilometres east of the town of Churchill, has offered research space to scientists and education programs to travellers since 1976.
The centre originally utilized a former rocket-launching control centre, launch pads and above-ground service tunnels. Residents sometimes complained of claustrophobia, as it's unsafe to venture outside in the heart of polar bear country, said Mario Tenuta, chairman of the centre's board and a soil ecologist at the University of Manitoba.
One worker had a close call two years ago when he ventured out to conduct maintenance by himself, contrary to centre policy.
"He was working outside the building when a female with two cubs came up right behind him," Tenuta said. "He managed to make it back inside."
The new building, which can house up to 95 scientists and other visitors, is built above ground to allow residents to poke their noses outside, well above the reach of polar bears and the biting insects that swarm around the tundra in summer, Tenuta said.
It also has a dome to allow up to 16 people a view of the Aurora borealis, an energy-efficient design that includes composting toilets and a cafeteria with room for all 95 visitors, even during the height of the fall bear-watching and summer beluga whale-viewing seasons.
"We're not a tourist organization," said Tenuta, whose centre offers "learning vacations" that allow visitors to immerse themselves in sessions about astronomy, northern ecology, birding and sub-Arctic plants -- as well as bears and whales -- for up to five days. "Niceties and comfort are not a priority. It's all about education."
Despite Tenuta's modesty, Churchill Northern Studies Centre has been very successful at bringing visitors to the Hudson Bay community, especially during times of the year when the tourism business is slow. Fees from visitors -- graduate students, their advisers, grade-school students and people taking courses -- are sufficient to cover most of the centre's $1.1-million annual operating budget, Tenuta said.
The centre raised $19.5 million to build its new home. The W. Garfield Weston Foundation got the ball rolling with a $1-million grant that came as a surprise to the centre's board.
The centre raised another $1.5 million from corporate and private sources before landing an $11-million federal grant and $6 million from the province to complete the new structure, which is fully operational although it officially opens on Aug. 24.
"Now they have a better facility that will entice more people to come up," Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said. He's happy the building is now more secure. "You never know with those bears," he said.
Earlier this month, a tourist was chased by a polar bear close to the Churchill townsite. Venturing away from the town without an armed escort is considered unwise at any time of year.
Churchill Northern Studies Centre