Sunday, October 29, 2006


In the “BG” days — before grandparenthood, I never thought very much about the role of children’s museums, but with grandkids you get to see a whole lot of things that you don’t remember or didn’t experience when your kids were small.

My better awareness of these fantastic destinations for fun and learning was enhanced because of the convergence of three things. First, my roommate on the Madison trip was Jon Mills, the president of the board of directors of our Kidzu Children’s Museum.

Second, we had a fantastic presentation on the Madison Children’s Museum by their executive director, Ruth Shelly. She told us about the wide variety of exciting programs that they offered, including participating in a unique partnership to provide free dental care to local children through its Body Shop health exhibit. She also made a very convincing case for how the museum enhances their downtown, but more on that later.

The third thing that happened was to see the Madison children’s museum on their State Street. I saw families walking around. I also saw people having their picnic lunch on the state capitol grounds either before or after a museum visit. And I smelled the freshly popped popcorn being sold by a vendor from a decorated cart across from the museum. It looked like plenty of kids — and their parents were into corn.

Did you know that in 1975 there were approximately 38 children's museums in the United States? Eighty new children's museums opened between 1976 and 1990. Since 1990, more than 130 have opened, and there are approximately 80 in the planning phase. Are you surprised to learn that children’s museums are the fastest growing sector of the museum industry?
Some local parents were tired of driving to Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, or other locations for their kids to experience a quality museum experience. Therefore, as we are wont to do in these parts, their conversations resulted in an organized effort to explore the possibility of starting a children’s museum in our community.

It’s not surprising to learn that they discovered all sorts of obstacles and heard plenty from the corps of naysayers, but they formed their 501-c(3) nonprofit and tackled the tough task of finding a location. With help from Dana McMahan, the owner of the East Franklin Street shop The Laughing Turtle, they had a generously donated space for the museum. They hired their two full-time employees, and all systems were “go” for being a kid magnet.

Open since March, the museum expected to host 20 thousand visitors per year; it has hosted 19 thousand already. The board raised the necessary funds from individual donors and foundations to get off the ground and is now trying to raise more so that they can move to a permanent home.

Where should that permanent home be? Based on what I heard and saw in Madison, their home should be in a downtown, or as close as one can get. And it’s just not a Madison spin. The Reader’s Digest has a blurb on children’s museums in its November issue, and they observed that “more and more parents want safe havens that offers tots extra stimulation. And civic leaders see the museums as urban renewal anchors.”

The Association of Children’s Museums says that sixty-three percent of children's museums are located in urban areas while twenty-three percent are located in suburban areas. Only fourteen percent of children's museums are located in rural areas. And to top it all off, the association reports that seventy-five children's museums are flagships in downtown revitalization projects.

Communities where the museums are helping to revitalize their downtowns are on to something. Our children’s museum brings people downtown that might not otherwise come. They come by bus and car and seem to be able to park just fine. Visitors also take advantage of the restaurants and stores downtown. Parents and their kids are visible on the street and create a powerful image that offsets negative perceptions of the downtown.

Another benefit of being downtown is the closeness to UNC-Chapel Hill students. Kidzu has been blessed with having student interns, work-study students, and volunteers like those from the DKE Fraternity who come out early in the morning to help unload and load exhibits. Kidzu also has relationships with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and the UNC School of Education.

We have in Kidzu a real winner for our community, and especially for our downtown. I suspect that its board will permanently locate where they can find 10 to 15 thousand square feet of donated space — they now have around three thousand. They need a space and we want a vibrant downtown. Kidzu is already making ours vibrant. Let’s hope we can help it continue to be part of the successful revitalization of our downtown.

That will be a good thing!

Sunday, October 22, 2006


You heard about the trip to Madison, right? Do you know anything about the history of these trips? Well, what follows is the short history of such trips and how we got to Madison. Why should you care, you ask? Glad you asked! I think our community should know how these things happen and the role many dedicated people played. So how did it happen?

In 1984, a group from Lexington, KY called the Public Private Partnership visited Chapel Hill to see what was happening here. In the fall of 1985, a group from our community paid Lexington a return visit. A trip to Princeton, NJ followed, and after that trip, the group incorporated a Public Private Partnership in Orange County.

Later trips took community members to Champaign-Urbana, IL, Boulder, CO, Charlotte, NC, Bloomington, IN, and Ann Arbor, MI. Participants indicated that each trip was beneficial and provided opportunities to learn what others were doing about tensions between growth and preservation, town-gown relations, downtown revitalization, and the arts.

After the November 1997 trip to Ann Arbor, another trip seemed to take a backseat to the pressures of time and circumstance. In 2003, Howard Lee chaired the Council on a Sustainable Community under the auspices of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. One of the recommendations from the group led to the establishment of the Chamber’s Foundation for a Sustainable Community to advance the triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

The new Foundation and the Chamber established the Community Leadership Council (CLC) to fill the void left by the demise of the Public Private Partnership. So, in April 2005, the new Council held its first meeting and made a commitment to plan and execute another inter-city visit. It was clear that all at that meeting thought that we could benefit from a trip to another community that has wrestled with similar challenges

By June of 2005, the Inter-City Visit Committee chaired by Scott Maitland (proprietor of Top of the Hill) slogged their way through a list of potential sites to recommend to the CLC. From this process, Madison emerged as the next destination. When Robert Dowling (executive director, Orange County Housing and Land Trust) and Scott Maitland became the CLC co-chairs, Maitland turned the trip planning committee over to Mariana Fiorentino, the president of Terra Nova Global Properties.

Fiorentino brought to the task a wealth of experience in meeting planning and management. Her committee, the Viking Travel Agency, and the Chamber staff managed the myriad details necessary to make the trip a success, including making an advance coordination trip, setting up the agenda and group sessions, and obtaining speakers.

Her committee, the Foundation, and the Chamber were concerned about charges of “elitism” and high cost. Those desiring to go to Madison included representatives from the local governments, UNC, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. To ensure that representatives of nonprofit organizations could participate, another committee solicited scholarship money. These scholarship dollars reduced the cost to recipients by 71%. What resulted was a group of people who represented our community in a wide range of activities and interests.

When I asked Robert Dowling for his assessment, he said that the trip exceeded his expectations. He saw it as a learning opportunity for our community, as well as a chance to build the relationships that are so critical to our future. What future? Carolina North, of course. Dowling saw Carolina North as a major influence on the future of our community and it’s important to do it well. “Bringing together people who hold a variety of positions — both in the community and towards Carolina North, can only help the process,” he said.

I asked Chamber executive director Aaron Nelson the same question. Nelson offered that from his vantage point, what impressed him was seeing people build relationships of understanding and trust. He thinks that the trip will enhance the future tenor of the community conversation. He also was impressed with the wealth of talent and commitment that he saw in the trip participants.

One of the things that especially impressed Chair Fiorentino (and me) was the Chamber staff. “It would be hard to find more sincere, high-energy professionals who work with such efficiency, good humor, and responsiveness,” she said. They made it possible to focus on what we were in Madison for and participants not be concerned with the details.

I’m glad I went to Madison. I think that we as a community will benefit because of the trip. I think that what we saw in Madison stimulated some ideas and different ways to think about things here. I also believe that as we work to meet the challenges ahead of us, you can bet that many of the major actors will have been among the 102 in Madison and on other trips. These are good thing.

Fred Black is a Chapel Hill resident who is interested and involved in a variety of community activities and organizations. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27616