Is a CHILDREN'S MUSEUM the ticket for downtown revitalization?
By Megan Malugani
The sight of a child in most corners of downtown Rochester on a typical weekday is as rare as a hot dog in a health food store, and it's even rarer to catch a glimpse of anyone preteen and younger downtown on most weekends.
Sure, there are kiddie sightings near the library or the Rochester Art Center, but other than that downtown is not really a hoppin’ place for kids and their caregivers.
All that could change if a children’s museum came to town, and a group of Rochester parents, educators, and businesspeople are working to make it happen.
Scott Liebl, president of the start-up non-profit organization The Children’s Museum of Rochester, Minnesota, has been working since the spring of 2006 to bring a children’s museum to the city, although he emphasizes that the location of the museum—downtown or elsewhere—has not yet been established. “My wife and I used to live in Fargo, and when her nephews and nieces came to visit we always went to the Children’s Museum at Yunker Farm and had a blast. When we moved here and our daughter was born, we started to think about Yunker Farm again and wished we had something like that in Rochester,” Liebl says.
It may take several years for a Rochester children’s museum—which will likely encompass between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet—to become operational. According to the Association of Children’s Museums, the average planning time for starting a children’s museum is 3.6 years. Currently, MBA students at Augsburg College in Rochester are conducting a five-month feasibility study for Liebl’s organization that will entail surveying stakeholders in the museum, talking to other non-profits, and comparing possible locations for the museum. The creation of a children’s museum is “really going to come down to large individual and business donors. We are going to have to present our vision to them and try to encourage them to sponsor sections of the museum,” Liebl says. Different sections of the museum may include a health/human body area; a main street where kids can grocery shop, do their banking, and dine; a water play area; an agriculturally-themed exhibit; and an area with a technology theme.
Downtown advocates hope that a children’s museum, should it become a reality, is located in the city’s core. According to the Association of Children’s Museums, children’s museums are the “flagships in downtown revitalization projects” in 75 communities and can serve as a modern version of a “town square.” “Children’s museums are neighborhoods now,” says Anne Steuer, founder and executive director of the Gertrude Salzer Gordon Children’s Museum of La Crosse, which opened in 1999 and is located downtown in the river city. “In kids’ own neighborhoods, everyone gets in a car and drives to work. At our museum, stay-at-home parents meet for the morning, go have lunch, and then come back,” Steuer says.
The La Crosse museum is located in a former furniture store that was donated for the museum. Steuer and others had to raise about $2.6 million to get the museum up and running. A $1 million donation from philanthropist Gertrude Salzer Gordon got the ball rolling. Now, both the downtown business community and families from Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota get to enjoy the fruits of Steuer’s fundraising labor. “Bringing 45,000 people downtown every year helps downtown,” she says. “And it’s a wonderful, positive, healthy, and happy environment for children. The only time we see anyone unhappy is when they have to leave.”
The Duluth Children’s Museum is another example of a children’s museum with a history of success. The oldest children’s museum in the state, it was established in 1930 by arts educator Mabel Wing and was originally located in a classroom at a public school. Later it was relocated to the lower floor of a large home in East Duluth, and in the 1970s was finally moved to the Historic Union Depot building in downtown Duluth. The children’s museum shares a building with an art museum, the Lake Superior Transportation Museum, and several arts organizations.
Michael Garcia, CEO and president of the museum, says it serves approximately 75,000 visitors annually, plus an additional 20,000 schoolchildren. After 28 years in the Depot’s limited 7,500 square feet of space, the museum is ready to move to a bigger site of at least 24,000 square feet in the near future, Garcia says. The board of the Duluth Children’s Museum is considering a move to the Heritage Sports Center, a new development in an industrial area two miles west of downtown Duluth. The Heritage Sports Center will include ice rinks, indoor soccer fields, a fitness center, an indoor/outdoor marketplace, and a small hotel. “One of the things we believe is that a children’s museum is strongest in a center that serves broader interests of the family and is not a solo destination,” he says. “We need to attract local families as well as tourist clientele.”
For more info on the Children’s Museum of Rochester, check out www.childrensmuseumrochester.org