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Delaware Children’s Museum Takes Shape on Riverfront

Tue March 09, 2010 - Northeast Edition
Betsy Price -The News Journal of Wilmington

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) The Delaware Children’s Museum is steeling itself for its April 25th opening.

And it’s a lot of steel.

Walk into what used to be the cavernous space inhabited by Kahunaville, and you’ll find a forest of gleaming steel studs marking off hallways, rooms and doors for what will be a lobby, offices, studio and six exhibits designed to get kids moving and thinking, all while having fun.

Some wallboard is beginning to go up, most notably in the entrance — where the three-story Saturn-shaped Stratosphere climbing exhibit will welcome guests. Beyond that, it’s hard to guess what’s going to be where.

The painters, plumbers, electricians and other contractors and exhibit-makers have 90 days to finish.

“The best news of all is that we remain on schedule and on budget,” said Julie Van Blarcom, the museum’s executive director. “I’m amazed that everybody keeps saying, ’Are you sure that you’re opening April 24?’ But we will be open on April 24 for our first full day of business.”

Outside, the $11 million museum will glow a brilliant yellow — a color named “cheerful” — that Van Blarcom and her staff expect to be highly visible from nearby I-95. The staff hopes to use the steel scaffolding that once held Kahunaville’s foam volcano as a base for its new signage.

Devoted to the idea that a child’s job is to learn through playing, the museum will target kids ages 1 through 12. Organizers expect about 135,000 visitors a year at about $10 a head. An economic impact study said the museum could contribute more than $5 million a year to the economy.

The Children’s Museum will join the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art and the just-opened DuPont Environmental Education Center as family attractions on the banks of the Christina River.

Bill Smith, vice president of the museum’s board, said he’s more than pleased with the progress of construction.

“I am overjoyed,” said Smith, who is president of Environmental Alliance Inc., a Wilmington consulting company. “The amount of progress that’s been made in the last 18 months in fundraising and response from the community, and watching the ideas that were started 10 years ago coming into existence has been phenomenal.”

Just shy of its original $11 million fundraising goal, the board will make up the difference with supplemental contributions earmarked for operating expenses.

“But we’re pretty much on target with our fundraising goals and our spending,” he said.

By mid-February, the museum staff expected to have chunks of various exhibits installed. Lots of pieces already have been built, including the two sculls that will allow kids in “The Power of Me” to row along Digiwalls showing images of the Christina River moving by.

“Oh, they’re starting to build out now,” Van Blarcom exclaimed as she looks around “The Power of Me” space, where a partial wall extends at an angle from the back wall. She pointed out where exhibits will be.

A huge rounded soffit of wallboard already hangs 10 ft. above the floor where the Stratosphere will be installed. Even now, it’s easy to picture the climbing structure that will fill the space when it’s finished by Tom Luckey, a Connecticut architect-sculptor who was paralyzed from the waist down in a fall about five years ago. The Delaware structure will be the first he’s built designed to be accessible to kids of all abilities.

Down the hall will be “Bank On It,” a nod to the state’s banking and financial industry. Visitors will enter it through a vault that’s just taking shape now.

Across the hall from “Bank On It” is ECOnnect, which will be anchored by a house built by Delaware’s Challenge Program. That program is designed to provide construction job training and placement among low-income youths and foster children aging out the system. They are taught construction math, safety and basic construction theory.

The ECOhouse will be built using “green” techniques to increase a structure’s efficiency. They may include energy-saving technology, low-flow plumbing fixtures and recycled or sustainable materials. The museum house will be built out of recycled wood, a lot of which was collected by the trainees on the riverfront. It will include a garden area, living area and kitchen.

The house’s construction will be paid for by a $206,000 grant from New Castle Pride, through Community Services Block Grant and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

Behind the house will be a water table that will simulate the waterways in Delaware, including the Roth bridge and its yellow sails over the C&D Canal. Behind that, a lighthouse will stand where planners once considered placing a tree.

The ECOhouse may have a national story to tell, Van Blarcom said. It’s believed to be the only exhibit of its kind, and certainly the only one built by a charity devoted to helping young people find “green” jobs in the construction industry.

“And we’re just getting started,” Van Blarcom said.

“We haven’t even touched the surface of the opportunities out there. We’re just beginning to focus on ways in which we can have creative partnerships with our colleagues in the community, nonprofit and for profit.”

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