Grand Forks' Center for Exploration receives major financial boost as children's museum, destination park
Operation Exploration committee receives $100,000, Tourism Planning Grant from the state's Department of Commerce
An idea that has been floating around the community for about 30 years has taken a big step forward with a grant from the North Dakota Department of Commerce.
The Grand Forks Center for Exploration, otherwise referred to as a children’s museum, has received a $100,000 Tourism Planning Grant to support professional planning for the facility, which is being developed to enhance the lives of area residents but also to draw visitors from out of state.
The Grand Forks Center for Exploration is one of five recipients of this award, selected from a field of 18 applications. It was the only project in the Red River Valley to receive this type of grant this year. The awards, ranging from $100,000 to $400,000, totaled $1 million.
The funds will be used to develop a comprehensive plan needed to build the Center for Exploration, described as a destination children’s museum that provides STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics – learning activities for people of all ages and abilities.
The building will serve as a connection point for the region with exhibits featuring agriculture, wind energy, technology and an event space for gatherings.
The project, still in the conceptual phase of the fundraising process, is part of a larger visionary campaign called “Operation Exploration,” said Jill Nelson, director of operations and community relations with the Grand Forks Park District and member of the Operation Exploration Campaign board, which is guiding the progress of the project.
Through philanthropy, naming opportunities and grant funding, the Operation Exploration Campaign committee, along with the Grand Forks Park District, is working on plans for the Center for Exploration children’s museum and destination park, Nelson said.
The center will offer “an interactive learning experience by highlighting regional industries and resources with multiple permanent and rotating exhibits, while the year-round destination park will provide an imaginative and inclusive play experience that will be free for all to enjoy,” she said.
The outdoor exhibits could include vegetable gardens, with the produce being used inside the facility as the basis for “play-based learning – and how it goes from field to table” said Dean Opp, retired director of the Grand Forks school system’s Summer Performing Arts program.
Similar types of practical learning could be applied to exhibits focused on wind energy and aerospace, he said.
Operation Exploration committee members estimate that the entire project is valued at $30 million, including about $20 million for the facility, which may occupy 22,000 to 25,000 square feet.
Members plan to continue to seek support for an endowment for the center and seek city, county and state awards as well.
The Center for Exploration would be sustained with donor membership and admission will be charged. Renting space for events, receptions and meetings will help to generate income, Nelson said.
The committee is hopeful the project could start in early 2023.
The proposed location for the exploration center is not yet being made public, because details of an agreement to attain the property are not finalized, committee members said in a recent interview with the Herald.
When first approached with the idea of a children’s museum, Opp said he recalled thinking, “this isn’t just an interesting idea, but a great idea.”
It surfaced at a time when, because of the pandemic, people were “looking for something positive,” Opp said, noting that Mayor Brandon Bochenski’s interest in developing Grand Forks helped to fuel enthusiasm.
Opp also noted the importance of inclusivity in developing the center, both in terms of accessibility for all and the types of exhibits that will be displayed. The notion of inclusivity extends to people who are dealing with Alzheimer’s, with committee members thinking of ways to ensure their comfort, or the elderly who appreciate chairs with arms to help them more easily rise from being seated.
About the committee members who are involved in the project, Opp said, “It’s amazing to see the vision they have – they’re thinking big. It’s impactful.”
Receiving the state Department of Commerce grant gives the project not only a big boost, but “it adds a lot of validity to what we’re doing,” he said.
“The passion of everyone on this committee is inspiring,” Nelson said, noting that they’ve been meeting and brainstorming with potential donors. “It’s a bigger-than-life goal. And we’ve been met with an overwhelming response from the community.”
Sally Miskavige, vice president of the Operation Exploration Campaign, said the idea of the children’s museum has been around for decades, as several education and other community leaders discussed a project of this type.
“Grand Forks is such a wonderful place to live. I raised my family here; we have wonderful teachers in Grand Forks,” Miskavige said.
“We want to continue to invest in the community, and keep it a great place to live.”
The 2021 Tourism Planning Grant, appropriated by the Legislature, is intended to support professional planning for tourism developers who have a destination project that would have the ability to attract visitors from outside North Dakota and retain them for at least four to six hours – and preferably an overnight stay in or near the community.
“North Dakota has ample opportunities to expand tourism experiences that enhance the quality of life for residents and attract visitors,” said Sara Otte Coleman, state tourism and marketing director. “We expect the plans developed will provide insight for future attractions that will be a driving force in boosting our economy by creating more entertainment and recreation attractions.”
Said Miskavige: “We are excited and thankful to be awarded a 2021 North Dakota Tourism Planning Grant. This grant provides our board with the assistance needed to help launch this amazing project beyond the conceptual phase.”
With construction costs raised through the Operation Exploration capital campaign, the committee plans to build a destination playground adjacent to the Center for Exploration, Nelson said. With the commitment of the Grand Forks Park District to own and operate the park, it will be free to residents and visitors, making this an attractive amenity for tourism in Grand Forks.
“Unlike standard neighborhood parks, destination playgrounds draw in hundreds of visitors and residents daily, due to their unique themes and large play structures,” Nelson said.
Julie Rygg, executive director of Visit Greater Grand Forks, said, “The Center for Exploration will assist with visitation and new resident efforts not only for Greater Grand Forks, but all of North Dakota. This is a wonderful opportunity for our community.”
Speaking for the Grand Forks Parks District, Nelson said, “We are honored to be part of this innovative project. This regional attraction will greatly benefit Greater Grand Forks while demonstrating our community’s investment in our local industries, our region and our future generations.”
More information about the Tourism Planning Grant can be found at www.ndgov.link/Tourism-Planning-Grant .
For more information about the Operation Exploration campaign, or, if interested, how to get involved in the project, contact the board at firstname.lastname@example.org .