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Charlotte Nature Museum plans $28 million, 5-year expansion

A rendering of the proposed Charlotte Nature Museum after its $28 million renovation.
A rendering of the proposed Charlotte Nature Museum after its $28 million renovation. Discovery Place

In five years, the Charlotte Nature Museum could connect to the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, flaunt glitzy new exhibits and welcome more than 160,000 visitors a year to its live animal displays and free-flying butterfly pavilion.

But first, it needs to raise $28 million.

Discovery Place, which runs the museum adjacent to Freedom Park in Dilworth, is planning a sweeping expansion and renovation that would transform the nature center into a 29,000-square-foot facility with a woodland garden, canopied walkway and otter display.

Museum leaders Tuesday presented their plans to Mecklenburg County commissioners to seek their advice and feedback. The county gives the museum $28,000 a year for operations, facility improvements and renovations, and owns the land and building the museum occupies, said Discovery Place President Catherine Wilson Horne.

The museum hasn’t started raising money. And while Horne said the museum’s board of trustees “would love a public investment,” she didn’t ask commissioners to foot any project costs. Yet.

$14.3 million new building and site construction

$12.2 million exhibits and programming

$2.2 million endowment to support accessibility

Commissioner Bill James, who questioned whether the county would end up paying half the project cost, or at least $14 million, asked what upgrades the county’s funding would provide.

Horne said Discovery Place would seek public money to cover design and construction fees but look to private donations for exhibits, laboratories and classrooms.

Talks about county funding for the project could come in summertime conversations about capital projects for the next fiscal year, County Manager Dena Diorio said.

Construction of a new nature museum would start in 2018 with a grand opening in 2020, in time for the museum’s 75th birthday in 2021.

Plans call for the new center to bolster its displays with more animals from the Piedmont region, Horne said. The expansion also would incorporate technology in exhibits that explore the climate and open new classrooms. Leaders want to reorient the park so that, instead of abutting Freedom Park, it faces the park, parking lot and greenway.

Today, the museum, home of the “Queen Charlotte” groundhog, is 13,000 square feet and draws about 65,000 local visitors a year – the “max” amount of people the facility can serve, Horne said.

A 5-foot chain-link fence separates it from Freedom Park, and some of the museum’s exterior is obstructed by foliage. “It looks like it’s not inhabited,” Horne said.

The museum’s programming and amenities lag behind other facilities in Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh, she said. And the facility has outgrown some of its space.

Our camps are oversubscribed. Our education programs are oversubscribed. We’re having trouble meeting the demand in that current facility.

Catherine Wilson Horne, Discovery Place president

Nearly 10,000 schoolchildren visited the museum this year, Horne said.

“We had to turn groups away, and we don’t want to turn anyone away,” she said. “Our camps are oversubscribed. Our education programs are oversubscribed. We’re having trouble meeting the demand in that current facility.”

Plans to redevelop the museum jibe with Discovery Place’s efforts to broaden its reach and enhance access to its centers, Horne said. The museum recently offered $1 admission to families who receive EBT (electronic benefit transfer) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) benefits.

But leaders want to offer exhibits that help students prepare for jobs focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We’ve had to say, ‘Do we have the right place? Do we have the right exhibits? Can we meet those educational needs?’ ” Horne said. “We came up short in all of those areas.”

Transforming the museum, she said, would help right the ship.

“This is what we think we need to do,” she said. “We are being compelled to do more and be more for this community.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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