By Steve Robinson | September 16, 2019 - 11:41 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – When either raising children or watching them grow into young adulthood, 25 years tends to feel like it goes by in what many characterize as the blink of an eye. In Normal, the group who founded the Children’s Discovery Museum in Uptown and seen its progress grow and the hundreds of kids pass through now bringing their own kids must feel the same way.

On Sept. 12, the Children’s Discovery Museum celebrated its 25th anniversary with a breakfast at the Carol A. Reitan Conference Center at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel in Uptown. Later in the day, the Museum was open for all the fun educational activities it provides in the three-story structure. Later in the day, parents, grandparents, and kids were invited to have a slice of birthday cake to celebrate.

During the morning celebration at the hotel, Beth Whisman, the Museum’s executive director, told the 400 breakfast attendees, “We’re here today to the people whose mission and vision and passion and talents came together to find a way to fill this museum.”

The Museum began with phone calls in 1988 between then-Bloomington Mayor Jesse R. Smart and area residents Shari Buckellew, and Cheryl Denslow. Each woman had an idea for the museum but didn’t know the other at the time. When the women did meet, they began formulating a way to convince donors the project was worth the effort. Herb Eaton joined forces with the ladies after seeing a newspaper article about what they wanted to accomplish.

The event recognized the group of seven who saw a vision through to becoming a reality. The museum founders are: Doris Reeser, Lynette Reiners, Kathy Moore, Andrea Ginnetti, Eaton, Buckellew, and Denslow. In honoring these people, Whisman told the gathering, “These folks, like everybody else, had busy, busy careers. Yet each of them made time to make this community involvement come to life.” The Museum did come to life, at first located at a small storefront called Kids Crossing at then-enclosed College Hills Mall on March 27, 1994.

When the popularity of the Museum led to increased demand for field trips and birthday parties, it was determined a larger space was needed. That meant the founding group geared up for seeking out more community partners and do more fundraising. The next home for the Museum was Constitution Place, beginning in 1995, an 8,000 sq. ft. former train station in Bloomington, where it would be known as the Children’s Discovery Museum Of Central Illinois, until it found its current permanent home in 2004. The move also meant shortening the name to its current moniker, the Children’s Discovery Museum.

While the museum was settling into their second home, “that was while the Town was looking into their redevelopment, consultants recommended the Town look to anchor everything with something that would bring families to the Uptown area,” Buckellew recalled. “When the Town contacted us, they knew we were looking to move from Constitution Place. They asked us if we would be interested in locating in what was then known as Downtown Normal.” The museum cost roughly $8 million to construct with the museum founders raising $3 million, the rest the Town contributed, borrowing some of it.

When the idea of relocating the museum to its now-permanent home was first brought up, explained former City Manager Mark Peterson, “There was some skepticism in the community, but I think, of the people who were involved in the Children’s Museum, I think they thought it was a great idea.” He said logistical issues such as parking and the building being in close proximity to railroad tracks were things “we knew we could deal with,” he added. “Those of us who were involved in it weren’t skeptical at all. I think we were believers from the beginning that this was a great addition for Uptown, and more importantly, a great addition to the community.”

“I remember being in a meeting and saying, ‘we can do this, and this museum will be a great addition to the community,’” said Kent Karraker, who was Mayor of Normal 25 years ago. “There were a lot of challenges, but I have got to commend the founding board of the museum. They were intrepid pioneers and they’ve done a fantastic job to where the museum has grown to what it is now.” He said opponents of relocating the museum into what was newly christened Uptown “were among the first to attend the museum when it opened.”

Peterson admitted where the Museum is home now wasn’t the original location planned for it when it was considered being added. He said it was first considered to be located on land where Uptown Station now sits. “But we shifted it over to the east a little bit, but that was a minor change,” he said, adding the owners of the bar formerly located where the museum now sits, Rocky’s, was compensated by the Town.

At the time Reeser and Buckellew were among the group wanting to put the museum started in 1988. “A friend of mine and I had seen a museum like it in Michigan and we both thought it would be really nice to have one like that here,” Buckellew recalled.

Once the museum opened and people saw what it contained, Peterson said, any skepticism about the museum’s potential success faded.

Pushcart Derby Moving To Rivian Plant: Kids are always seeking new places to play. And in previous years, some have participated in the Museum’s Pushcart Derby. The derby, a fundraiser for the museum, encourages kids to apply principles of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) to design and race a vehicle. In June 2020, the fourth year for the event, the popular race will relocate to Rivian Automotive’s manufacturing property. Proceeds from the annual fundraiser support the Museum’s mission, enabling the expansion of STEAM programs, the creation of new exhibits, continuing outreach initiatives and scholarship provision for disadvantaged youth.

Two Million Plus Visitors Now: The 25th anniversary comes just three months following the museum honoring its two millionth visitor in June.

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