By Gary Gray
Johnson City commissioners will consider a proposal to give $500,000 to Hands On! Regional Museum in exchange for the museum’s downtown building — a move that would help complete relocation to the Gray Fossil Site & Museum and launch what would be known as the Hands On! Discovery Center.
Hands On! Executive Director Andy Marquart presented the plan to commissioners last week, and the proposal is expected to be on the City Commission’s Sept. 21 agenda.
“Again, the intent here is that Hands On! is repurposing a space and getting back on the tax rolls,” Mayor David Tomita said.
Hands On! currently occupies three downtown buildings, but it owns only one — the main facility at 315 East Main St. It uses city-owned buildings at 313 and 317 East Main St. for storage, office space, field-trip staging and occasional exhibits.
Marquart said the total cost to relocate and utilize about 12,000 square feet of space at the Gray Fossil Site, and to begin the Discovery Center, is about $1 million. He hopes that can be accomplished by the middle of next year.
“We conducted a study in 2014, and concluded we needed much more space,” he said. “All our exhibits and content have been picked out, and it’s ready to go. This investment would enable us to move forward, and we anticipate this would result in about 100,000 visits a year.”
The next step is to construct a new, 22,000-square-foot facility (which includes 15,000 square feet of exhibition space) adjoining the fossil site building. This would bring to roughly 30,000 square feet the total amount of exhibition space. The cost for this phase is an estimated $6 million, and the goal is to begin construction in 2020.
“The cost will be funded mainly through private donations, but there are other possible funding sources, such as federal and state grants,” Marquart said. “When the city has all three buildings, it will give them the capability to anchor further retail and commercial development downtown.
“The investment by the city in the new Discovery Center will have far-reaching and immediate value in regards to economic impact, education, tourism and quality of life. It will be vital to the community’s regional economic development as it competes with other regions. The city also will receive valuable Main Street property allowing for more control of development of the downtown corridor, and the likelihood of increasing taxable property.”
Marquart said an official announcement of the new name, logo and overall plans should be coming soon. He said the biggest reason for the name change is that the word “museum” is associated too closely with the image of a collection, and he does not want there to be confusion about the two entities.
“We’ve been operating educational functions at the 315 East Main site, and at the Gray Fossil Site since July 2016,” he said. “We haven’t moved our exhibits there yet, and we haven’t announced a date when we will do that. Again, mainly to avoid confusion. We’re trying to make this a win for everybody.”
City commissioners seem amenable to the proposal, though it is a long journey to $6 million. Both Johnson City and Washington county officials will likely be involved in funding decisions down the road.
“Hands On! has been part of the fiber of this community,” Vice Mayor Jenny Brock said.