By Matt Garfield
(Rock Hill) Herald
An interactive children's museum proposed for downtown Rock Hill would use 3-D exhibits, colorful shapes and play equipment to create what organizers tout as a whimsical playland honoring the late artist Vernon Grant.
The museum, envisioned in the vacant lobby of the People's Bank Building, would be geared toward preschoolers and young children who could visit with their schools or families.
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Planners describe walk-through paintings, fantasy characters and a giant slide made to resemble a spoon. It would send youngsters careening into a mock bowl of cereal, a tribute to the Rice Krispies' Snap! Crackle! Pop! characters invented by Grant.
A group of arts boosters and county museum officials pitch the project as a timely fit for downtown, saying they have a property owner willing to sell for cheap and an audience of youngsters who stand to benefit.
The two-story space is owned by Harry Dalton and Joe Lanford, who have agreed to sell for $250,000, a fraction of the property's $900,000 appraised value, according to the museum. Dalton lives in an apartment on the top floor.
But to bring the project to life, the county's Culture and Heritage Museums says it also needs money from taxpayers in Rock Hill and York County. The group is asking for $450,000 each in hospitality taxes from the two governments, with the amount to be spread over three years.
Hospitality tax revenues must be spent on tourism-related efforts.
If the plan comes together, organizers hope to open in time for the city's ChristmasVille festival in December 2010.
But the project faces a number of questions – and the potential for skepticism.
Many taxpayers are giving greater scrutiny to government spending at a time when the economy is in turmoil. Public opposition recently led to the demise of a publicly funded art piece proposed at the Rock Hill water treatment plant.
Other critics are wary of handing money to the county museum, citing the organization's struggles to raise donations and manage its existing attractions.
“How many things are they going to have on their plate at one time?” county councilman Joe Cox of Sharon asked. “When we're moving forward with so many projects, we really need to evaluate what is essential.”
Cox said he has concerns about a museum built around Vernon Grant, a respected artist but one unfamiliar to many outside Rock Hill.
“Most of the people who really appreciate Vernon Grant are in their 70s,” Cox said. “They're not going to want to go to a children's museum.”
Museum leaders approached city officials last year, but officials weren't satisfied that enough specifics were given. So the project went back to the planning stage.
Now, the city feels more comfortable with the cost estimates and targeted opening date, said Mayor Doug Echols, who called the proposal “our own local stimulus.”
A museum store facing Main Street would sell Vernon Grant artwork and other wares, adding to the mix of retailers on the block.
“With the success we've had with ChristmasVille, building this whole thing around Vernon Grant adds an exciting element,” Echols said. “All that blends together to make for an attraction, something that will bring people to town and also be very valuable to our citizens.”
Museum officials believe the museum would draw 15,000 to 20,000 people per year, based on research and interviews with other children's museums in the Carolinas.
“Now is exactly the time to make an investment like this,“ said Culture & Heritage Museums director Van Shields. “What better time to try to turn these funds into more dollars than now? To me, it's prudent.”