ST. CLOUD — A playground with greenspace that's open all year. A climbing area that stretches into dreamy clouds where children can explore weather phenomena. And a winding waterway where folks of all ages can learn more about the Mississippi and Sauk rivers that flow through central Minnesota.
These exhibits and more are expected to open to the public by the end of next year at downtown St. Cloud's newest amenity, the Great River Children's Museum.
The building on 7th Avenue — which has also housed a chick hatchery called "Jack Frost," a car dealership and a grocer — was last used by Liberty Bank Minnesota, which donated the space for the museum in 2018.
Since then, organizers have raised more than $10 million in pledges and one-time donations from businesses and individuals, according to Cassandra Miles, executive director of the museum. And on the last day of the session this year, legislators passed a $2.6 billion infrastructure package that includes $7 million for the museum, which allows renovations to begin this year.
In a written response to the Star Tribune, Miles, 37, talked about what will be the second largest children's museum in the state when it opens. Her answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell us about the process of transforming a bank building into a children's museum. How much of the work is left to complete?
A: In a building with over a hundred different rooms, it was difficult to imagine how to make the best use of the space. We reviewed proposals from several exhibit design teams and ultimately partnered with Brooklyn Park-based Split Rock Studios and Memphis, Tennessee-based Haizlip Studio, which also provides architectural services. The pandemic allowed volunteers an opportunity to take time (hours and hours) pulling out over 50,000 pounds of materials to be rehomed, reused or recycled. Construction and exhibit installation is next.
Q: What are some of the exhibits and features in the works?
A: The museum will have eight mainstay exhibits, as well as a temporary gallery for traveling exhibits, a dining area and rooftop deck. Our exhibits are inspired by central Minnesota, the natural world and our strong belief in bringing the community together through play-filled experiences. Mainstay exhibits [beyond the three described above] include a "Community Connections" exhibit that celebrates diversity and community, a "Great Explorations" exhibit for children up to age 3 to explore the worlds of light, sounds and movement, an "Everyday Engineering" exhibit with a play space focused on creative thinking, a "Tinker Workshop" with supplies and inspiration to get kids crafting, painting, building, coding and 3-D printing, and a "Headwaters" exhibit that features a gradually changing day and night cycle to showcase the wonders of the natural world.
Q: Why is a children's museum an important asset to a city or region?
A: Museumgoers in general spend more than $30 more per person outside the museum visiting other businesses in the area. Great River Children's Museum expects to draw in over 125,000 people each year. Children's museums are also unique in their ability to offer a safe and respectful space for other child- and family-serving organizations. Social workers, as an example, will have a new and joy-filled space for supervised visits. And schools, clubs and childcare centers will have a place to go that doesn't involve a bus ride to the metro.
Additionally, the multilayered, dynamic and interactive exhibits at children's museums create the perfect platform for brain development. The more that a child can experience at a young age, the more neural connections are made that serve to assist that child with solving problems and coping with variables that life throws at all of us.