By Katie Garcia - August 31st 2023



Private donors have carried the planned Children’s Museum of Rock County past the halfway point of a fundraising effort to open in a historic downtown Janesville space.

Representatives of Children’s Museum of Rock County, Inc., the Janesville-based non-profit behind the ongoing capital campaign, said in an interview with The Gazette they’re confident the community will now see the project to fruition.

The museum is to be located in the former First National Bank building at 100 West Milwaukee St., with plans to demolish a drive-up section and to restore and repurpose the historic bank building.

“I am continually touched by the generosity of people in my hometown,” John Westphal, chair of the capital campaign, design committee and construction committee for the museum, said in the interview. “I’m so proud that people who live here open up their pockets and help get stuff accomplished.”

“I personally believe that museums, civic organizations, and civic destinations belong downtown. When I was recruited to be on the board a few years ago, I told these guys, ‘the only way I’ll do this is if it’s downtown,’” Westphal recalled.

Children’s Museum of Rock County, Inc. President Claire Gray said with 81,000 projected annual visitors, the museum will transform downtown Janesville, making it even more of destination, building on renewal efforts of recent years.

“Every day people leave to go to Madison, or Sun Prairie, or down to Rockford, for children’s museums. There is constant traffic leaving our community and we have the market to capture it here,” Gray said, noting as Westphal did that “we want to thank [the private donors] for their generosity.”

Hands-on learning

The museum’s focus will primarily be hands-on learning to engage the brains of infants through children age 12.

“The population we’re working with is working on pre-reading skills. What are pre reading skills? Talking to your children, singing to your children, they need to hear words. There’s lots of studies done on early childhood brain development from 0 to 3, for the need to be stimulated,” Gray said.

There will also be opportunities for quality learning for children ages 13-18, according to a recent report prepared by the nonprofit group.

Flexible spaces in the museum is envisioned to host diverse programs to meet the needs of adolescents, the group said.

Additionally, “the great thing about this location is that we’re within walking distance of, you know, a lot of economically disadvantaged families,” Westphal noted. “This is about creating a level playing field when it comes to early brain development and early childhood education.”

In 2021, the board of directors worked with a consultant from Massachusetts, ConsultEcon, Inc., on a market feasibility study and business plan to explore the long-term feasibility of the children’s museum idea.

The planned main source of revenue will be daily admission and annual memberships. Other revenue will include after school programs, gift shop purchases, cafe and food service, day camps, birthday parties, and some level of annual fundraising, according to the report.

The group doesn’t anticipate major annual fundraising needs due to factors that include being a new museum with fresh exhibits, being located in downtown Janesville, reusing a freshly remodeled historic building, carefully sizing the space to keep operating expenses in line, hiring an experienced exhibit designer, and intentionally not relying on annual fundraising.

Westphal said plans to raise the rest of money needed to open the museum include continuing the capital campaign via major donors who can potentially tap new market tax credits.

A blighted area downtown that normally developers would not invest in because they can’t get a desired return on their investment could be eligible for tax credits for investors, Westphal said.

“The IRS provides a large percentage [of] income tax credit, for you to get a return on that investment [to encourage] those investors,” Westphal said.

What it will look like

Angus Young Architects has been hired to help design the space.

The idea of a patio rooftop has been floated.

The only other rooftop downtown is Riley’s Sports Bar & Grill, “so this could be an important part of the financial sustainability of our museum [as well as providing] educational experiences,” said Gray.

Community input is being sought.

“Claire, the people in our board, and our tech or design team suggested that we have meetings with diverse members of the community to shape our design of what they’d like to see in the museum,” said Westphal.

The nearby Rock River and agriculture will be prominently featured “to accurately represent the community,” said Westphal.

“We just want people to see themselves reflected in the museum, but also be really proud of where they come from and see all the opportunities [available to them],” said Gray.

And there will be special features for kids with different needs, including the planned conversion of the bank vault into a sensory room, for children who have autism or other need for a quieter space.

Project’s roots

The Children’s Museum of Rock County started out as a capstone project of the Leadership Development Academy of Rock County class of 2006-2007.

Children’s Museum of Rock County, Inc., became a registered non-profit in Wisconsin in August 2007, according to Wisconsin Department of Financial Institution online corporate records.

Efforts to bring the museum to life quickly paused, however, amid the 2008 financial crisis.

Later on, the group became “just a group of volunteers that started putting on some outreach events,” Gray reflected.

Then came the pandemic.

“COVID was actually really good for us, we did all of our play kits and our two scavenger hunts. We kind of gained momentum and people really saw and felt the need for the museum during COVID,” Gray said. “And that’s when we started kind of having more conversations with city leadership and John became engaged with the board.”

The non-profit group was previously based out of the Uptown Janesville Mall and now is in the Olde Towne Mall downtown. Gray said the group appreciates the time they were at Uptown Janesville. It was “really grateful for the incubator space,” Gray said.

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