Wonderscope, Red Bridge Library Change Plans
The Library and the Museum will now be separate
By John Sharp, Jill Draper and Kathy Feist
A new site plan for the Wonderscope Children’s Museum has been released, and it’s different from the plan proposed nearly one year ago when the museum announced it would move from its current location in Shawnee to a grassy area just west of the Red Bridge Shopping Center. The big difference is that the new plan does not include the Red Bridge Branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library.
The original rendering from February 2017 shows the library under the same roof as the museum. At the time, politicians and other officials described the proposed 30,000-square-foot shared facility as “innovative” and “a game-changer for the community.”
Now the library is no longer in the picture. Literally. Instead of the library, the new site plan shows a day care center, La Petite Academy, adjacent to the building on its north side. Euston Hardware is on the east. The library is off the drawing, south of Euston Hardware where it currently stands.
“The library decided to kind of go its own way,” said Brian Spano, director of communications for the museum, who added, “We’ll still be neighbors and we’ll still probably partner with them on programs and projects and other things.” According to Spano, “I don’t think the decision was made overnight. It just came about from decisions that were made over time.”
The Mid-Continent Public Library “stepped aside,” according to director Steve Potter, because “some of the museum’s donors have restrictions on giving money to projects that involve government entities. It just wasn’t working out for them to be associated with us,” he said. “It was closing some of their avenues for fundraising.”
Roxanne Hill, executive director of the museum, confirmed that one potential museum funder had concerns about funding a facility that also benefitted a governmental entity such as MCPL.
A Quiet Obstacle
In addition to the donor restrictions, there was another obstacle that threatened the combined facility. The space leased by La Petite Academy was needed in order for plans to materialize. (The original plans did not include the preschool.) When Lane4 Property Group approached the preschool to work out a plan to vacate, La Petite filed a lawsuit contesting the lease agreement. In December, a declaratory judgment was made affirming the rights in the contract. Despite the obvious visual, anonymous sources say this had no bearing on the latest plans.
Instead, Potter said in the end the restrictions by potential funders of the museum made it difficult to co-locate both agencies’ facilities in a shared building. MCPL’s overall construction budget could only cover a new building when there was a cost savings from a shared building.
“If we were just renting the building at Red Bridge, we could negotiate something new,” he said. “But there is no room to build without tearing down our existing building.”
“We would have loved to move forward,” Potter said, “but we just couldn’t make all the details work out.”
Potter said the Red Bridge Branch Library will remain in its current building, which the library system owns. Major renovations will provide community rooms and smaller collaborative rooms for tutoring, an outdoor reading space with furniture and Wi-Fi, new lighting, and updated furnishings. He and a team from Helix Architecture + Design visited the branch on Jan. 5 to discuss possibilities. Work on the library should begin in early 2019.
Potter said he envisions the branch becoming an even greater asset and gathering place for the community than it is now, “instead of being just a big warehouse for books.”
Before plans are finalized, Potter said MCPL officials will come to the Red Bridge branch in late summer or fall to see what new services and facilities area residents want.
“The Red Bridge Branch, inside and outside, is going to look like a brand new library when we’re finished,” Potter said.
The Wonderscope Museum will hold a groundbreaking event at the new site on March 19, with a tentative move-in date of April or May 2019. Major construction work should start in late summer. Spano said the museum has raised 40 to 45 percent of its $12 million capital campaign, and that figure is on target. Kansas City-based McCownGordon Construction will be the general contractor for the project.
Right now, the nonprofit museum is operating in a repurposed elementary school. The new facility will be much larger and will feature a half-acre of outdoor play space with a natural area. Interactive exhibits will focus on art, engineering, math, science and technology experiences.
“We’re almost constructing the building around the exhibits,” Hill said.
Founded in 1989, Wonderscope focuses its services primarily on children from toddlers to 10 years old. It currently attracts about 70,000 visitors annually, but Hill expects that number to significantly increase to between 100,000 and 200,000 in the first year of operation at the shopping center due to improved exhibits and facilities such as birthday rooms, plus better highway access.
Brandon Buckley, vice president for Lane4 Property Group, the owner and operator of the shopping center, believes the two entities will “feed off each other whether or not they are in the same building.”
“We are looking at a million different options to make it work, whether that means building a walkway between the two or adjoining in some way.” The final result, “undoubtedly is going to be a huge draw,” he said.
For now, all parties are happy with the current decision.
“We’re thrilled with the welcome we’re receiving,” Hill said.
“There are no hard feelings,” said Potter. “We’re just happy we’re going to be neighbors. I’m really, really excited about being able to collaborate with a world class museum right in our back yard. This is a huge win for south Kansas City.”