'We're against the wall': Edwardsville Children's Museum struggles

News-DemocratNovember 1, 2013 

— As it approaches its 10th anniversary, the Edwardsville Children's Museum is fighting to keep its doors open.

The museum that inhabits the old Leclaire Schoolhouse off Troy Road has entertained a generation of Edwardsville children on a bare-bones budget and part-time staff. But despite 10 years of "Starry Starry Nights" and play-acting grown-up roles -- and 12,000 visitors a year -- less than 40 percent of Edwardsville residents know they exist, according to board president McKenzie Breihan.

"We work off such a small budget that we've been depleting our reserves for a while," Breihan said. "We do not have any debt, so we have nothing to pay off."

But their $90,000 annual budget only stretches so far. The museum rents the building from the city of Edwardsville for $1 a year, and the staff is entirely part-time or volunteer, including interim director Ann Robertson. But that means there isn't much room to cut the budget, they said.

"People should understand that the fees we charge don't cover the expenses," Robertson said. "In order to make it affordable, we have to subsidize what we do."

In fact, it's common for organizations like a children's museum to cover 60 percent of its costs through fees and admission, and 40 percent through fundraising and grants, Robertson said. For the Edwardsville Children's Museum, fundraising has been a challenge.

"In large part it was the financial downturn," Robertson said. "All nonprofits took it on the chin. People are still giving, but giving less."

Breihan said Think Tank Marketing has taken on the museum as a cause, creating a new website and promotional video to help them spread the word. They are conducting a holiday fundraising drive to try to get $100,000 in cash reserves, which Breihan said would "seal the deal" for the museum's future. Local employers are participating in "Jeans for the Museum," where employees give a $5 donation for the right to wear jeans to work.

In addition to a direct appeal to the community, the museum is hoping to attract corporate sponsors. The Edwardsville Police union is already sponsoring a "crime lab" in the occupations section, and they are hoping a technology sponsor will help renew their hardware and software; a medical center to sponsor the doll hospital, etc.

And that's part of what makes the museum special, Breihan said.

"Your little one can pretend to be a police officer, a firefighter, a doctor, a grocer," she said. "It allows a child to get into that imagination stage, to imagine what they'd like to be when they get older, and that's so much fun to watch."

The science room, renovated by Boeing's employee fund, allows children to see inside a wall, simulate an earthquake and learn how water moves through pipes. Special events like "Starry Starry Night" set up telescopes on the lawn, so they can learn about space.

The biggest problem is just letting people know they exist without much in the way of an advertising budget, Robertson said -- especially when they're located next to a ball field, somewhat off Troy Road without a large sign on the main road.

"We have managed through the 2008 downturn to get this far without a crisis," she said. "The board is keeping an eye on things and making sure that we operate within our means, but we're against the wall. We have great programming and people love coming to see us. It may be hard to find us, but we're worth finding."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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