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County museum moving ahead with $6.4M building project

Current plans for building a new Becker County Museum are to construct it as an addition to the community center complex, with lobby, box office and gift shop facilities to be shared with the adjacent Historic Holmes Theatre. (Drawings courtesy of YHR Partners, Moorhead)1 / 2
The project to build a proposed 30,000 square foot, $6.4 million Becker County Museum facility next to the Historic Holmes Theatre will hopefully break ground next summer. (Drawings courtesy of YHR Partners, Moorhead)2 / 2

Though the Becker County Museum did not receive a proposed $3 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature for its building project this year, museum director Becky Mitchell remains optimistic that they will be able to break ground on the proposed $6.4 million, 30,000-square-foot facility by mid-summer 2020.

"Though 2019 isn't a traditional bonding year, there was a proposal for funding the museum that Sen. Kent Eken and Rep. Paul Marquart submitted during the session," Mitchell said. "It will be proposed again in 2020, which is a bonding year... there are no guarantees, but we have good support for it."

Toward that end, Mitchell and other museum backers spent a day at the State Capitol this past spring, meeting with legislators including the chairs of both the Senate and House bonding committees and policy advisors for Gov. Tim Walz. The meetings went well, she added.

"The Senate bonding committee will begin touring proposed projects around the state later this summer, and we're hopeful they'll make a stop here at the museum," Mitchell said.

In the meantime, however, the museum has quietly started ramping up its building campaign, after putting it on the back burner in 2018 due to a plethora of other local projects on the horizon.

After securing pledges from Becker County as well as the other communities within the county's borders, Mitchell went to the Detroit Lakes City Council this past spring, and secured a $500,000 commitment from them in April. Currently, the museum is in the "private ask" portion of the building campaign, she said.

"We've been working toward a new facility for several years," she said, "and what was perhaps more of a vision or dream for the future is now a definite need.

"We have a lot of water issues, structural issues, and there have been a few instances where we've lost original documents or artifacts due to water damage and mold."

As the need for a new facility has gradually become more urgent, the plans for that facility have also evolved from a single story, stand-alone building near the Holmes Theatre to a two-story facility that attaches directly onto the theater, with a joint lobby, gift shop and ticket office.

"In the process of fundraising, it became clear that the museum needed to grow its audience," Mitchell said. "It wasn't that people didn't support the museum... the general population just didn't have a strong relationship with it."

That led the board to what Mitchell calls a "visioning process," where they called in a consultant from the Minnesota State Historical Society to find out more about what the 400-plus other museums across the state were doing to stay viable, as well as what they could do to expand their audience base.

Mitchell was sitting at a county board meeting one day, waiting to give them an update on the museum project, when inspiration struck.

"The county seal on the wall behind the commissioners caught my attention," she said. The seal includes the words "industry, agriculture, forestry and tourism," which represent the four economic pillars upon which the county was built.

"It occurred to me that three of those were very science-based," she said.

From there, she began to develop the idea of adding the disciplines of science and child-based programming to the museum, which had previously been focused mainly on preserving history.

"I brought that idea back to David Grabitske (the Minnesota Historical Society consultant), and the two of us developed it and presented to the museum's board of directors with a plan to add a science discipline to our mission and along with that, a focus on children."

After all, Mitchell added, "our children are the future patrons of this museum."

The board agreed to let Mitchell and her staff do a "test run" of the concept with a traveling exhibit that was scheduled to make a stop at the Becker County Museum that spring.

Titled "Water/Ways," the exhibit focused on all things water and water quality led to local partnerships with more than a dozen agencies and nonprofits, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Becker Soil & Water Conservation District, to name a few.

"We cleared out as much space in our lower level as we could, and transformed it to offer hands-on, interactive activities targeting our youth," Mitchell said, while the upper level housed the sprawling "Water/Ways" exhibit itself.

"The end result was, we had more people at the museum in the six weeks the exhibit was housed here than we'd had in entire years prior to that," Mitchell said. "We had school groups coming in by the busload... and we were getting all grade levels, K-12."

In other words, it was a huge success.

"Very shortly after that, we officially adopted the science and children's disciplines as part of our focus, along with, of course, history," Mitchell said, adding that it is the latter which will continue to be the main focus of the museum's mission.

"We have been expanding our programming immensely," said Mitchell, noting that such additions as summer youth camps for robotics, art and science, as well as "Stories & Stones" cemetery walks for all ages, have proved immensely popular, frequently selling out all available slots.

"It's all about education, for all ages," Mitchell said.

As the ideas for a new museum building began to evolve, they also invited their geographic neighbors, the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center (of which the Holmes Theatre is a part) and the Chamber of Commerce, to take part in the discussions, along with city and county officials.

That's where the idea of physically attaching the museum onto the theater began to develop, and took flight.

"We began to look at what spaces could be multi-purposed," Mitchell said. "A rooftop garden could be used for an outdoor yoga or art class, or we could use it as an outdoor classroom for one of the museum's science activities, or a place for people to come enjoy a cup of coffee."

A small coffee shop was added to the plans, with a drive-through to entice an existing coffee retailer to rent the space as an adjunct to their business.

"Every space in this proposed new facility has been thought through, to develop multi-purpose areas that meet our current needs, but also provide flexibility for the future," Mtichell said.

For instance, the point where the museum would attach onto the theater was developed into a joint lobby, box office and gift shop, with the idea that the two entities could more easily share staff and resources.

"It's a partnership," she said. "We're working together, to ultimately provide more for our community."

Mitchell said that the museum board and staff are eyeing a mid-summer 2020 groundbreaking for the new facility, with full occupation in 2021 — the sesquicentennial of both the founding of the City of Detroit Lakes, and the organization of Becker County.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

(218) 844-1454