The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 22, 2013

Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota wants former bus garage for new home

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota is asking the city of Mankato to donate its downtown bus garage for the new home of the museum.

The site has several advantages — such as an 11,000-square-foot garage that would make a great exhibit gallery — over current plans to build on the site of a former Ember’s building, said Peter Olson, executive director of the museum.

“The more we’ve looked at it, the more we’ve realized that it’s not only suitable, but it increases the vision, makes it better,” Olson said of the bus garage site, located just north of Riverfront Drive on Lamm Street. The children’s museum is now at an interim site on the corner of Cherry and South Second streets.

Last summer, the council turned down a request to donate $250,000 to acquire the former Ember’s site, but Olson is hoping the council will see this as a way to help the museum without spending any money.

The city is building a new transit facility near its public works headquarters on Victory Drive, but it won’t be finished until late 2014, City Manager Pat Hentges said. Even so, the city has short-term options and could be out of the building later this year, he said.

The bus garage could accommodate all of the exhibits the museum has been planning, Olson said, including the Tree of Forts Climber, the signature exhibit for which the Mankato Clinic donated $500,000. The planned-for rooftop farm would move to ground level.

“The farm becomes a better museum experience because we’ll have much more interior space for an exhibit that’s all about modern agriculture,” Olson said.

The new site also includes two acres of outdoor space, much more than the Ember’s site.

Linda Frost, chair of the children’s museum board, said an existing building, preferably downtown, had been the goal all along. That desire, along with a goal to collaborate with local government, would be satisfied with the garage site.

“The board is and has been very excited about the prospect of this being an option for us,” said Frost, who is not related to Mankato Councilman Mark Frost. “Traditionally, museums are often in a big, open site. This is exactly what this is.”

The cost to remodel the building is estimated at $3.5 million, though that is likely to change. The estimate to build a museum from scratch was $4 million, though even that higher figure wouldn’t equal the square footage of the bus site.

“If we were to raise $4 million for the Ember’s building, we wouldn’t be opening with the completed vision,” Olson said. “We’d be opening with a good museum that has room to expand but it wouldn’t be the full vision.”

Still, the bus site has flaws.

“The one thing that we lose is connectivity to the Blue Earth County library,” Olson said.

And while the facility is visible from Riverfront Drive, it would be in a commercial area that’s off the beaten path.

“I think we will make it noticeable,” Frost said.

The location could, in fact, be enticing to the council because it would be the first major redevelopment project on this section of the Sibley Parkway. The downtown Buffalo Wild Wings has tentatively discussed moving next door to the bus parcel, and a developer is seeking state funds to build an apartment complex in the area.

And though the donation would be free, the site does have value.

The county assessor, who reviews tax-exempt properties such as this one every six years, last reviewed this parcel in 2010 and pegged the land’s value at $328,300 and the building’s value at $215,600. It is hard to say what the parcel would actually be worth on the private market because the building wouldn’t be valuable to every developer.

The proposal will be discussed Monday at a Mankato City Council work session, which takes place after the 6 p.m. regular meeting in the Intergovernmental Center.