Observatory group begins work on proposed Ottawa Valley tourist destination

Elizabeth Howell
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If a potential astronomical facility in the Madawaska area gets off the ground, the City of Ottawa is among those entities considering it a good bet for tourism, according to the facility’s chief backer.

Artist's conception of the Madawaska Highlands Observatory (image courtesy the observatory).

The long-term vision is to transform 100 acres of land near the Madawaska River into a visitors’ center geared to astronomy, as well as a professional facility for astronomers to use.

The Crown-owned land needs to undergo an environmental assessment before the Madawaska Highlands Observatory group purchases it. The assessment – financial details of which are confidential – was just started with Ottawa-based BluMetric and is expected to finish in the summer.

“In terms of how [the facility] operates, it functions as a tourist destination with a strong K-12 educational component, the tourism being seasonal and the K-12 being out of season,” said Frank Roy, the observatory’s CEO, in an interview with OBJ.

Opening would happen no earlier than 2016.

When that happens, the plan for its first $14-million phase is to have a 25,000 square foot visitors’ center featuring a digital planetarium. A 30 to 40 inch telescope will be available for public and school use, with an additional similar size telescope on hand for astronomical research.

There is no similar facility on hand in Eastern Ontario, according to Mr. Roy, which would make it a large tourism draw for the region as well as the upper United States. He is hoping for 120,000 visitors by the second year, divided equally between tourists and school groups.

The numbers are comparable to what similar worldwide facilities see, Mr. Roy added. He expects it could be similar to Texas’ McDonald Observatory, which according to him has about 60,000 visitors a year.

A spectacular international example is Britain’s Greenwich Observatory, which brings in 1.6 million visitors annually.

Dozens of counties around where the facility would go have expressed their support for the proposal, he said. It has also received preliminary interest from Ottawa Tourism and the City of Ottawa, Mr. Roy added.

The observatory group is also seeking investors for the initiative. Mr. Roy aims to raise $7 million from selling shares in the observatory and the remaining $7 million from conventional commercial debt financing based on the business plan.

He declined to say how well fundraising is going so far, but said it should be completed by the spring.

The top officials associated with the project right now are Mr. Roy, who was an amateur astronomer and once owned Two Rivers Computing Networks in Ottawa, as well as local entrepreneur Greg Bell, who owns garage door company The Door Co.

Organizations: Madawaska Highlands Observatory, McDonald Observatory, Two Rivers Computing Networks The Door Co.

Geographic location: Ottawa Valley, Madawaska River, Eastern Ontario United States Britain

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