Secretary Hughes visits Children’s Museum of Eau Claire to see WEDC’s investment
EAU CLAIRE, WI. SEPT. 16, 2022 – Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes visited the new location of the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire (CMEC) on Friday.
The new museum, scheduled to open in January 2023, has benefited from a $250,000 state grant from WEDC. The Community Development Investment Grant is supporting the construction of the 25,000 square foot building at 126 N. Barstow St. in downtown Eau Claire. Using its space more efficiently than in the old location, which was a few blocks away, the CMEC will now offer 6,000 more square feet of exhibit and programming space.
During her visit Friday, Secretary Hughes toured the museum building, which isn’t yet complete but is on track for a January opening. She also spoke with McHorney to learn about his plan for the new Children’s Museum of Eau Claire and all the ways it will be an incredible resource for the greater Eau Claire community.
“A modern, spacious learning environment is a huge resource for children in Eau Claire and beyond,” said Secretary Hughes. “Combined with its helping families find childcare and accommodating special-needs visitors, this project is a massive upgrade for the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire and one WEDC is thrilled to support.”
“The museum draws thousands of visitors every year through programming, schools and out-of-town visitors,” said Aaron White, Eau Claire’s economic development manager. “They provide a lot of programming for residents in the community, which has a big impact on the children. With childcare tied to it, the new facility will be meeting another need in the community.”
There will also be a preschool and child development center in the new museum building to offer another childcare option in the city. This will enable more Eau Claire families to keep their kids local rather than drive elsewhere for preschool.
“Childcare is a hot topic around the state but especially in Eau Claire,” said CMEC’s Executive Director Michael McHorney. “We have families driving almost 60 minutes round-trip to get their kids to and from childcare. It’s a problem that folks have to travel from Eau Claire to find childcare elsewhere. This is an expansion of our program offerings—it’s not something we’ve done before, and it’s not something you always see in a children’s museum.”
Another feature of the new museum will be a “sensory space” to aid visitors with autism, Asperger syndrome and other sensory challenges. Whereas at the old museum, such children often entered the management offices when overwhelmed or needing a break, they’ll now have a dedicated space tailored to their needs. CMEC also offers a low-cost membership for families with special needs children.
“It’s been neat to see the integration of kids with special needs coming to the museum, as it offers a unique setting for them to learn and feel welcome,” McHorney said. “Parents have expressed to us a hesitancy to come to the museum because, if their child does have something go wrong, they’d have to leave. This dedicated space should really help those families in those situations.”
The new building has more natural light, more parking, a more accessible entrance and a 2,000 square foot outdoor green space. Located on the corner of Galloway St. and N. Barstow St., CMEC will be in the neighborhood of new commercial developments including housing, restaurants, retail and grocery stores. Further, being just down the road from the Saturday farmer’s market and other events, the museum will benefit from considerable foot traffic.
“We’re really excited to be in that location,” said McHorney. “Everyone walks past our new location, so we’ll have proximity to large-scale events that happen, some on a weekly basis.”
“It’s a prime location in our core downtown area,” said White, who’s also executive director of the city’s redevelopment authority and has overseen the recent development in the neighborhood.
WEDC’s investment in children’s museums extends beyond Eau Claire—in Wausau, another $250,000 CDI grant is aiding the development of the Children’s Imaginarium. The Imaginarium will feature five galleries, each with a distinct STEM-related theme and multiple exhibits within. Intended for children ages 2-12+, the museum will help fill gaps in youth STEM education in the Wausau Area.
“It was industry standards, talks with employers and feedback from schools that interaction with STEM helps with kindergarten readiness,” said President and Co-Founder Maggie Gordon. “All of those helped lay the foundation for the concepts behind our exhibits. It’s hard to teach STEM concepts at home or in preschool.”
Conversations with local employers helped the team at the Children’s Imaginarium understand the profound importance of youth STEM education and how early exposure to these concepts can have a long-lasting impact on children.
“We want to encourage the next generation of the workforce,” Gordon said. “Maybe we can help some kids find passions they wouldn’t be able to find otherwise.”
Like the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire, the Children’s Imaginarium will occupy a central, downtown location at the former Wausau Center Mall. The mixed-use development going up in the mall’s place will bring to the neighborhood an abundance of residents and visitors with the Imaginarium as a key destination. Such a prime location will make the museum accessible by public transportation, too.
“Having that visible investment in kids, right in the downtown, is a core value of the Children’s Imaginarium,” said Gordon. “Children’s museums are known tourist destinations—many people actually seek them out when visiting an area. Being downtown, the buy-in of locals at first will be instrumental to our success.”
“We’re very happy to have the Imaginarium in the downtown area,” said Randy Fifrick, Wausau’s economic development manager. “It’s going to bring in visitors to help our retail, restaurants and everything else downtown.”
The Children’s Imaginarium is expected to open near the end of 2023, and it could grow beyond its initial form—down the road, Gordon hopes to establish partnerships with daycares and nonprofits in the downtown area.
WEDC’s Community Development Investment Grant Program supports community development and redevelopment efforts, primarily in downtown areas. The matching grants are awarded based on the ability of applicants to demonstrate the economic impact of the proposed project, including public and private partnership development, financial need, and use of sustainable downtown development practices.
From the program’s inception in 2013 through March 2022, WEDC has awarded nearly $34.8 million in CDI Grants to 166 communities for projects expected to generate more than $517 million in capital investments statewide.