Baxter and Brainerd are the two potential candidates to be home for the proposed Region Five Children’s Museum.

Barring a significant change in plans to establish a children’s museum in Region Five, the Brainerd lakes area will be the host - the two sites are either the Potlatch property right off Highway 371 in southwest Baxter, or the Lum Park site in Brainerd.

Museum Project Director Peter Olson said the initiative to establish a children’s museum was started in 2015 by foundational activists at Sourcewell (then the National Joint Powers Alliance), inspired in part by successful similar programs in Mankato.

Sourcewell then established a planning group that worked alongside the community to develop the idea and come up with a master plan for a children's museum. While it’s difficult to say when decisions will be made, Olson said a final site could be chosen by the end of the year.

“Selecting the site of the museum is very, very important,” said Olson, who emphasized budgetary feasibility and accessibility to families are key considerations to make. “We’ve done extensive work studying five potential sites and now we’ve narrowed it down to two. Right now, we’re gathering information on both sites to present our board of directors.”

Region Five covers Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties. Olson described the facility as a hands-on, tactile and play-based immersive experience that addresses deeper points of learning than the kind of academic scholarship kids will see later on.

If progress is made in an expedient manner, Olson said it’s not impossible to see the facility open as early as 2020 or 2021, though much of that will come down to how the group can work with various nonprofits and governing bodies - including Baxter or Brainerd - as well as coming up with creative sources of funding.

Describing its strategic position on traffic thoroughfares through its area as a gateway, Olson noted the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota in Mankato sees more than 100,000 visitors a year, while low-end projections for the Baxter/Brainerd museum predict it may see 40,000 a year - though, Olson expressed skepticism it would actually be that low.

He noted the program looks to channel funding and resources to aiding early childhood education up until preschool - before the public school system can make an impact, yet the most crucial time of development in anyone’s psychological, emotional and intellectual development. This onus on upstream investment in education has been reflected in a boom of children’s museums across the United States and the globe, to the point, he said, that many parents expect a children’s museum in any region they visit.

The Brainerd lakes area museum would exemplify the great outdoors and feature a number of interactive amenities to challenge young minds. Olson noted the Potlatch site’s close proximity to Forestview Middle School and the upcoming Baxter Elementary School would present a network of interconnected resources and benefits.

“There’s over 300 children’s museums across the country and probably another 100 (more) across the world. It’s the fastest growing type of museum and the newest type,” Olson said. “They’re different from other types in that there isn’t a collection. … It’s about being hands-on and being immersed in these environments. We believe that’s how children learn best.”