History in the making

Proposed $6 million museum to be
connected to Historic Holmes Theatre

It's been almost three years since the Becker County Historical Society first unveiled plans for constructing a new museum to replace its aging building at 714 Summit Ave. in Detroit Lakes.

Since then, the local nonprofit has gone through changes in leadership, focus and vision that resulted in a temporary suspension of those plans — but the museum's board of directors and staff are now gearing up to launch a new, $6 million capital campaign for a two-story building that will be directly connected to the Historic Holmes Theatre, via a shared lobby, box office and gift shop area.

"We will be re-launching our capital campaign later this month," says Becky Mitchell, who has been the museum's executive director since August 2015. "We plan on continuing to build on the funds raised from the previous campaign."

Mitchell added that current plans call for a 2019 groundbreaking, with the new museum building projected to be completed and ready for a 2020 grand opening.

"We will be breaking ground in 2019," she said. "Time is of the essence, due to the structural situation with our current building."

The existing museum was purchased from Assemblies of God Church and repurposed as a museum in 1989. At that time, parts of the building were already over 40 years old, having been constructed in 1948, damaged by fire in 1956 and rebuilt in 1957.

"Our current facility continues to deteriorate," Mitchell said. "There has been water damage due to leaks, the roof is not sound, we've had windows fall in on us... we need a facility that is safe for our artifacts and research library materials, as well as our staff and visitors."

In short, the existing museum building has reached the end of its usable life and needs to be replaced, she added.

Initially, the museum's staff and board of directors had thought to construct a stand-alone, $3.2 million building, located to the west of the current building, which would be removed and the land used for parking. That plan was conceived under the leadership of Mitchell's predecessor, Amy Degerstrom, back in 2015.

"I picked up with the capital campaign after she (Degerstrom) left," said Mitchell. "But as I continued fundraising, the feedback I was getting was that many of our younger generations didn't have a strong relationship with the museum, because they hadn't come here when they were kids.

"We were hearing that we needed more programs, for both kids and adults, and more variety," she added — and so the historical society board embarked on a "visioning path" to discover what form this new programming should take, calling in a consultant from the Minnesota Historical Society to assist them.

"We found out a few key things," Mitchell said. "One was that while many county museums had more diverse programming, others didn't — we were right about in the middle.

"We also discovered that of the over 415 museums in the state, we were among just a handful that weren't charging admission," she added, noting that the data gathered from these museums showed, "if you pay to get in, you tend to spend more time exploring, seeking a deeper knowledge of what you're seeing."

So last May, the museum began charging a $5 adult admission fee, though all kids under age 18, as well as museum members, are still admitted free of charge.

Charging admission, Mitchell said, has the added benefit of helping to raise funds not only for museum operations, but also, once the campaign is launched, for the new building as well.

In exploring how to get more young people — and particularly, school tours — through the museum's doors, the board began to ponder whether a change in focus was in order.

"The question was raised... is history enough? Or do we need to be more creative with how we're telling our story?" Mitchell said.

The catalyst for this shift was when the Becker County Museum was chosen as a host site for the Smithsonian Institute's traveling exhibit, "Water/Ways."

Though the exhibit — which focused on the role of water in shaping our culture, society and traditions — had a historical component, it also had a science-based aspect, and with the help of a grant from the SJE Rhombus Foundation, the museum was able to set up a variety of related, hands-on science activities in the museum's lower level, to draw in adults and children alike.

"During the six weeks 'Water/Ways' was here, we had more people coming through our doors than we'd previously seen in an entire year," Mitchell said. "We had school tours coming in droves, which gave us the opportunity to talk with teachers about why they were there... Was it for the Water/Ways exhibit itself, the opportunity to do hands-on science activities, or to tour our local history exhibits? The answer was... all of the above."

As a result of that experience, the board decided to add both science-based exhibits and children's activities to its overall mission of "preserving and presenting local history."

Once their updated vision and mission statements were in place, the board revisited its plans for a new building.

"We began to ask, is this 2015 plan for our museum enough?" Mitchell said. "Will it be enough to fulfill the vision of three different disciplines?"

Ultimately, it was decided that a larger facility would be needed — and that it might be worthwhile to begin talks with the museum's nearest neighbors, the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center and the Chamber of Commerce, about common needs and the possibilities for working together.

"So we (the museum's board and staff) had a block meeting with the DLCCC staff and board of directors, the Chamber staff and board, along with our city and county officials," said Mitchell.

From there, plans began to take shape for a new museum building to the west of the DLCCC's Historic Holmes Theatre, which would be joined with the theater through a shared lobby, box office and gift shop space.

"The plan is for the box office and gift shop to be staffed by a combination of museum and Holmes Theatre employees," Mitchell said, which will allow for expanded hours (the Holmes Theatre is currently open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, while the museum and its gift shop are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday) as well as shared resources.

"There will also be a new staircase added next to the current elevator, which will improve access to the theater as well," Mitchell said, noting that the existing staircase between the main lobby and second floor is steeper than most, which has caused some accessibility issues (falls, etc.).

"We also decided to add a coffee shop," she added, noting that the current plan is to have the coffee shop be run by one of the existing operations in town (La Barista, Caribou, etc.), as an adjunct to their business, rather than starting up an entirely new operation.

The main level of the museum, which will be adjacent to the lobby/box office/gift shop area, will include the main exhibit gallery, research library, an audio recording studio for compiling oral histories, and a receiving/assembly area for new displays and exhibits.

"The theater will also be able to use this area for their production needs (set building, etc.)," Mitchell added.

The museum's second level, meanwhile, will include spaces for science exhibits and hands-on learning areas for children, as well as a classroom/meeting space and a small rooftop garden that can be used for outdoor science activities as well as some DLCCC fitness classes.

"There will also be staff offices and restrooms on both floors," Mitchell said.

A small basement area, covering about a third of the total space of the addition, will be used for storage, she added.

"All of the current plans are available for viewing at the museum anytime we're open," said Mitchell. "Anyone who is interested in helping with the capital campaign can call the museum and give us your name and phone number; there will be some meetings about it coming up, and we will be in touch when those meetings are scheduled."

By Vicki Gerdes 

Source, image, credits & more information: DLOnline