By Collin Brooks
Hands On! Regional Museum has plans outlined to move their facility from their current downtown Johnson City location to the Gray Fossil Site Museum, but they will need a little bit of monetary support.
That led Hands On! Regional Museum Director Andy Marquart and a few of his board members to ask Washington County — during the April 6 Health, Education and Welfare Committee’s meeting — for $1 million to complete the first phase of their move.
The committee decided to table the decision until their May 4th meeting, but committee chairwoman Katie Baker sounded enthused by the idea of the monetary support spread over a five year period.
“I’m so excited for you and supportive of the project,” Baker told the presenters. “There are pictures of me as a very young child at the Hands On! Museum, that was something that I — I grew up in Greeneville — but it was something that I came to Johnson City to visit.”
Commissioner Gary McAllister was a little hesitant to make such a large decision during the meeting, and asked for the resolution to be tabled. Any monies given to the project would be part of the fiscal year 2018 budget.
The $1 million over the next few years would kickoff the museum’s two-phase improvement plan, which entails the museum moving to the Gray Fossil Site by early 2018, which would close the downtown location. Marquart noted that asking for the money from the county will allow them to focus on private donations for the second phase of the project. The first phase of the move is to invest a little over $1.5 million into exhibits, programs and those types of content.
The second phase would add on to the Gray Fossil Site, that would add about 14,000 square feet of exhibit space. Adding that to the space they already have in Gray, will give them about 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, which Marquart noted, would be their sweet-spot when it came to the perfect space for this area. But that will come at a price tag of about $6 million, bringing their total cost to $7.5 million
The move would save them money, compared to the $15 million price tag Marquart said it would take to build a new 17,000 square foot facility. The goal for the new facility is to raise private donations and have shovels in the ground by 2020.
The Gray location — which will have $2 million economic impact for the area, according to Marquart — will put them closer to an equal distance from Kingsport and Johnson City and it increases their population reach by 18 percent in a 30-mile radius when they move from downtown Johnson City to the Gray site.The museum receives almost 15,000 students from 48 school districts in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky for field trips throughout the year and 60 percent of their visitors reside in Washington County. Hands On! receives about 70,000 visitors a year, while the Fossil Site receives about 30,000 visitors each year.
The museum, which has been around for over three decades, has intentions to become a discovery center that is STEM based and will match the learning standards inside of the classroom for the state of Tennessee in 2019.
“Our exhibit program is working with those exhibits and enhancing that, so that we can truly stay and continue to be an extension of the classroom that we have always been,” Marquart said. “But in order to do that we have to reinvest in our exhibits and programs.”
He said that they would also like to work with Washington County Schools to make sure they are coming online as an additional resource in Washington County.
“Education is at the heart of our mission, but so is tourism and economic impact,” Marquart said. “We feel that we touch all those things and we feel it would be a definite advantage to be out in Washington County.”
No other government has been asked for monetary support, but Marquart did say that they will approach Johnson City, Kingsport and Sullivan County for their help.
Washington County Finance Director Mitch Meredith said that $1 million would mean a penny of the tax rate would need to go to the project and be built into the fiscal year budget for 2018, so “It is not an insignificant sum,” Meredith said.
If the county doesn’t provide the money, it will put the museum in a bit of a crunch, as they will have to go back to the drawing board as to how to make the project happen and the timeline — which includes a full move in 2018, closing down the downtown location and a new addition of a 17,000 square foot building by 2020 — would have to be reworked. The plans for the downtown site are for it to be sold, with that money going into the capital improvement fund.