The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 8, 2013

Bus garage freed for possible use by Children's Museum

Final lease would still need to be approved by City Council

By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press

MANKATO — The backers of the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota, working to raise $4 million for a permanent home, saw $50 added to the challenge Monday night.

That's how much the city of Mankato is looking to charge the organization for a half-century of usage of the soon to be vacant municipal bus garage -- $1 a year. Acting as the Mankato Economic Development Authority, the members of the Mankato City Council voted to authorize the leasing of the building just northeast of the downtown Cub Foods store.

A final lease will still need to be approved by the council and financing will have to be secured by museum officials, but the decision means the facility is there for the taking.

"It essentially takes the building off the market," said City Manager Pat Hentges.

Mayor Eric Anderson and five other council members authorized staff to finalize a development agreement for the project.

"It's pretty obvious to me there's wide public support to see this come to fruition," Anderson said.

The museum, operating on a limited basis in temporary space at the corner of Second and Cherry streets, has more than $2 million in pledged donations and could start renovations on the bus garage as soon as the city is ready to move out, according to Executive Director Peter Olson.

"We're shooting for the summer," Olson said.

The city is constructing a new transit facility near its public works building on Victory Drive, but that wonÕt be completed until 2014 and there's no guarantee that bus operations will find a temporary home by summer. Olson and museum board members appeared to be very pleased with the EDAÕs decision nonetheless -- even if the move-in date is still up in the air.

"This is a major step for the children's museum to realize a fantastic permanent home," said Olson, who has seen near unanimous excitement by architects and consultants about the potential of the building. "... It's looking like it's surprisingly ideal for a retrofit for a 21st Century museum for families."

There remains plenty of work to be done before the doors would be opened to the public.

"From the date we get the keys, we can give a rough estimate of at least 12 months to opening," he said.

Much of that time, however, will be devoted to design and construction of the elaborate exhibits envisioned for the facility. Museum officials are shooting for $2.4 million in funding just for exhibits. The building fundraising mark was $4 million, although the city donation of the bus garage cuts the construction costs by about $2 million compared to building from the ground up.

The city is going with a lease rather than a building donation because, as a public entity, it would be eligible for certain state funding in the future that a private nonprofit wouldn't be, Hentges said. The lease also gives the city control over any potential change in the building's use if the museum were to fail in the future.

Anderson asked questions about whether the city would face any legal liability as owner and whether the city would be expected to finance any related improvements at the site. Hentges said the museum would be required to obtain liability insurance and that the only city-financed improvement is a possible access off of nearby Riverfront Drive, which he said would carry minimal cost.

 The only opposition Monday night was from Councilmember Karen Foreman, who said numerous other nonprofit organizations would appreciate a similar gift from the city and weren't given a similar opportunity.

"I don't yet have a comfort level with this one, and I'm going to be voting no," Foreman said.