Since 2015, quiet discussion has been taking place in Cass, Crow Wing, Wadena, Todd and Morrison counties about the development of a regional children's museum.
In March, the Region 5 Children's Museum board (a working title; the museum is not a project under the economic development group) opened and accepted applications for proposed museum sites. Groups from Pine River, Pequot Lakes and Brainerd threw their hats in the ring, leading to five local sites initially under consideration.
The board received a total of nine submissions, and a committee in charge of choosing decided to proceed with visits to five of those nine sites. Local sites not listed for visits include the Abe White farm proposed by Heritage Group North in Pine River, the Brainerd Public Library proposed in Brainerd and private Sibley Lake property proposed in Pequot Lakes.
Site visits will be made to two other Pequot Lakes sites and one Brainerd site.
Pine River's Heritage Group North proposed part of the 40-acre Abe White farm, an historical farmstead near the Pine River information Center.
"We are, of course, disappointed Pine River is no longer under consideration," said Alan Johnson, with Heritage Group North. "It was heartening to see the community pull together for this proposal. Heritage Group North took the lead with great cooperation from Cass County Economic Development Corporation, Pine River Economic Development, Pine River Chamber of Commerce, the city of Pine River and Pine River-Backus Schools. All the data gathered will be very useful for the planning underway for the farmstead heritage center."
Heritage Group North had hoped to incorporate the project into a plan to turn the farm into a hands-on historical site dedicated to demonstrating the area's past history in agriculture.
Heritage Group North and those assisting with the application considered the Abe White farm a prime location because of its more central location to Region 5. This location would offer less distance between the residents of the outermost reaches of Region 5.
Johnson said the location offered many features they felt would benefit the facility, including fields, wetlands, rolling hills and at least one tree more than 100 years old.
Johnson said that from the beginning the group knew Region 5 wasn't too interested in going farther north than Pequot Lakes, so the elimination wasn't a surprise. Johnson still expects the museum will be important to the area.
"Wherever it is located, the heritage center will have a major educational, cultural and economic impact. It will be a great asset to the greater lakes area," he said.
The city of Pequot Lakes proposed three possible locations for the children's museum, including the Historical Fire Tower property that Crow Wing County now owns, the Heart of the Good Life development along Highway 371, and private property on wetlands and lakefront that the Tweed family owns and that the committee did not include for a site visit.
"The possibility of Pequot Lakes being selected as the site for the children's museum has brought overwhelming support from a multitude of community supporters and collaborators," said Pequot Lakes City Administrator Nancy Malecha. "We are inspired by the mission and purpose as defined by the children's museum board of directors and it is our desire to work together in strengthening the local and regional connections by providing unique and natural environmental learning experiences for our children, families and teachers. We can accomplish great things by working together, and the children's museum will complement our opportunity to do just that."
Each location has different features that makes it desirable for the project.
• The 1934 historical fire tower is located on a major thoroughfare with heavy traffic and high visibility. In addition, the fire tower offers historical, recreational and educational opportunities.
• The Heart of the Good Life Development has 85 acres of shovel-ready, certified parcels adjacent to State Highway 371.
Malecha said the city believes Pequot Lakes is the best option because of its access to major lake chains and recreation, its school district and community organizations, its central location within Region 5, synergy with the fire tower, Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway and eventually the National Loon Center in Crosslake, abundant area history, popular festivals, and growth in population of young families.
Brainerd City Council and staff proposed Lum Park and the Brainerd Public Library for consideration in the children's museum project. The committee will visit Lum Park, which was a favored location among city council members.
"What we have suggested or proposed, any selection of a site within the city would have to then go through a negotiation and agreement process about what the city needs or is willing to offer," said Brainerd Community Development Director David Chanski. "One of the things we had discussed is the current parks and recreation offices. They have been in discussion for some time now for renovation or to move the parks department out of Lum Park. That would make that area of the park available. Our biggest thing with the park is to be maintained as a public park."
Chanski said Lum Park has various features that would work well for the museum, including:
• Access to Rice Lake, which is connected to the Mississippi River.
• Open green space with great potential for garden space or greenhouses or other outdoor features.
• Wooded areas.
• Access to highways 210 and 371.
• A population of 200,000 children within the city.
"We think Brainerd is the correct location of choice because we are the economic, educational, recreational hub of Region 5. When you look at the development of the region, it started with Brainerd," Chanski said.
Region 5 has not set any deadlines for deciding on a location.
The 12-member planning committee will now begin to visit sites and speak with applicants about their proposals. In addition to selecting a preferred location, there are many other steps to be taken before a children's museum can become a reality. Funding is one big step in the future.
The planning committee was formed of local volunteers, with some formation and planning paid for with a one-time seed funding donation through Sourcewell. Funding for the museum itself will have to come from investors.
"To actually realize the children's museum, build the building and fabricate exhibits, an investment from a diversity of sources will be needed," said Museum Project Director Peter Olson.
This is not the first project of its type. Olson said Region 5 started planning by visiting other museums, including one in Mankato that served as a great inspiration for how they have and will move forward with planning. The goal of Region 5 is to have a robust facility with hands-on, locally relevant exhibits.
"The museum is all about a shared understanding of our regional identity and connecting to the larger world," Olson said. "Fantastic, immersive, built environments that reflect the natural wonder that is fairly unique to north central Minnesota. All these hands-on, full-bodied learning-through-play opportunities that build skill development, that build processing skills that empower children and make them masters of their own learning. All within a clear sense of place that is north-central Minnesota."