MANKATO — Peter Olson’s vision is a grand one.
Take a look at the sketches and plans for the future of the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, and it’s clear when the museum is done — and in Olson’s mind, it’s not a matter of if, but when — it will be a beacon of community cooperation, a hub of mind expansion, a place where anyone, not just kids, can come for a sensory experience this town has never seen before.
Why is the vision so grand? Because, Olson said, the community has spoken. And they’re not interested in anything mediocre or sorta good.
“Mankato has a strong sense of its future and the need to invest in its future,” said Olson, who previously worked at the Children’s Museum in St. Paul.
The road to get there — to the two-story-high Tree of Forts Climber, to the Whiz Bang Gallery and Studios, to the science labs and rooftop farm, to the shiny new facility with natural light and bright colors — is about $4 million long.
So far they’ve raised about $1.7 million, bolstered by major grants from area businesses and philanthropists, including $1 million from Lyle and Kay Jacobson and $100,000 each from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Ridley Inc., and Bryan and Tami Paulsen (this gift was combined monetary and in-kind contributions).
A handful of donors has given $4,000 to $50,000, including a donation that just came in for $40,000. That gift, Olson said, solidified his confidence that they’ll be able to begin construction next fall.
In addition, Olson recently asked the city of Mankato to consider contributing by purchasing the former Ember’s restaurant lot near the county library for $250,000. He said the new museum at that location would complement the city’s downtown renaissance plan. Plus, he said, the lot is next to land the city already owns and a donation would be in the spirit of local governments generally assisting in capital projects of large nonprofits, such as VINE getting the Blue Earth County-owned Nichol’s building for $1.
The City Council has not yet voted on the request.
Here are some of the highlights of the museum’s facility plan:
n Great Big Gallery — The facility’s basement will be filled with what’s called the Great Big Gallery. This is where the exhibits dedicated to water and rock quarries can be found. Having such exhibits, Olson has said, is important so that the museum to can tie learning to the natural resources of the region.
n Main floor — The distinguishing feature of this floor will be an iconic feature called the Tree of Forts Climber, a safe climbing structure reminiscent of the Swiss Family Robinson. Olson said this area could possibly be available for gatherings such as weddings or company parties.
n Second floor — The so-called Whiz Bang area will be here. It will focus on science, technology, engineering, art and math. Because it will be away from the toddler-focused areas, Olson said it will be ideal for older kids. Work areas will be taller, again catering to the older end of their birth-12 target audience for a children’s museum. This will be an ideal area, Olson said, to incorporate adult volunteers who want to give back to the community. Quilters, for example or woodworkers can come and demonstrate their craft for kids and teach them basics, hopefully fostering an interest in such hobbies.
n Rooftop Farm Park — Olson said this could be one of the biggest draws of the museum. They plan to have live animals here. They’re also considering what kind of programming they can structure around the idea of a farmer’s growing season.
(Visit cmsouthernmn.org for more information about the future site and about the capital campaign.)
Traffic to the museum’s so-far temporary sites has been encouraging.
Olson said that since the facility opened at its first temporary location in 2009 at Madison East Center, they’ve had more than 50,000 visits. The museum now has 600 members from 15 counties and four states. Groups from 64 school districts have booked visits. (The museum will operate at the Cherry and Second streets site until the permanent facility is completed, Olson said.)
The kind of traffic seen so far, he said, will not only be good for the museum but good for the community. Olson said he believes the museum eventually will be the kind of facility that prompts families from outside the area to plan overnight stays — Christmas shopping and a movie one day, Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota the next, for example.