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VMNH board ponders growth

Sunday, November 17, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin staff writer

Waynesboro may not be the only worthwhile place to open a branch of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, according to officials studying the idea.

Another suitable potential location has not been identified, though.

The museum’s Board of Trustees, having discussed the issue at length on Saturday, plans to make a decision during its next quarterly meeting on Feb. 15 as to whether it will pursue establishing a branch museum somewhere.

Consultants determined that a Waynesboro branch would be feasible. Local officials there as well as museum officials have shown interest because the area has many nature-related attractions such as Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the South River, a popular fishing spot.

The state-funded museum in Martinsville used to have branches at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The sites were closed about a decade ago due to funding issues and the universities’ needs for space to grow their programs, museum Executive Director Joe Keiper said. He worked elsewhere at the time.

A trustee board subcommittee concluded that the museum first must affirm an interest in starting a branch and then look at possible locations other than Waynesboro, a report presented to the full board Saturday shows.

“It is clear that Waynesboro would be a good location,” the report states, “but what are we missing by not looking at other locations?”

Keiper has identified three consulting firms willing to work with the museum to answer that question, the report adds.

Trustee Lisa Lyle Wu of Arlington said it would be nice for the museum to have a branch near a university again.

Despite having no branches now, the museum has exhibits at the privately-operated Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center in Nelson County and a visitor’s center in Caroline County. It also places exhibits from time to time at state parks and other leisure facilities, officials said.

Those presences “add to our ... influence” statewide but they do not generate revenue for the museum, Keiper said.

His vision for the branch museum is a building comprising about 25,000 square feet, including about 18,000 square feet of exhibit space and the remainder being laboratory and support space, he said.

The branch would be run by a full-time “jack of all trades” manager with support from some part-time employees, he added.

Museum officials said they hope a branch facility would entice its visitors to come to the Martinsville museum to learn more about natural history.

“We’ve never intended to replicate what we have here” in Martinsville, said trustee Janet Scheid of Vinton, who headed the subcommittee.

A Waynesboro branch, Scheid said, could be designed as an “interpretive center” to teach visitors about natural aspects of the Shenandoah Valley.

Officials indicated they also may consider establishing some other type of facility in Waynesboro or elsewhere that is not a full-fledged branch.

What such a facility might be like was not discussed in detail.

Trustee board Chairman Melissa Neff Gould of Danville said a “pilot program” could be expanded into an official branch museum if it proves “wildly popular” with visitors.

Whatever might be established should be able to generate revenue because the state is unlikely to increase its funding for the museum soon, Keiper said.

Waynesboro has both downtown buildings that could be redeveloped for a branch museum and “new ground” that could be built upon, Scheid said.

Estimates place the cost of developing a branch museum at $7.4 million. In comparison, the museum’s 89,127-square-foot building in Martinsville, which opened in 2007, cost about $13 million. A state bond issue paid the cost.

Several trustees, including Monica Monday, Mervyn King and Lee Lester, all of Martinsville, voiced concern over cost factors for a branch museum.

Monday said private funding might be needed in part.

In discussions with Waynesboro-area leaders, Keiper said, “I’ve made it clear ... we’d have to draw funds from that area” so a branch would not take any money away from the Martinsville location.

“We need to find out what Waynesboro will do for us” before committing to establish a branch there, Lester said.

Keiper was glad to hear a board member make that statement. Now, he said, “I can go to Waynesboro and ask” for that information “with credibility.”

“I don’t know of any significant (financial) support coming in (already) from Waynesboro,” said Stacey Reed, president of the Virginia Museum of Natural History Foundation Board. The foundation is a nonprofit affiliate organization that raises money to benefit the museum and its programs.

Reed, of Martinsville, said foundation board members “would like to see a commitment from businesses and foundations of Waynesboro” because the foundation already has “put a lot into” supporting the Martinsville museum.

If Waynesboro leaders are “really interested” in having a branch there, “they can probably come up with some creative ways” to help the museum develop one, said Trustee Dr. Mark Crabtree of Martinsville.

“It can’t just be a local commitment,” King added. “They’ve got to put something into it, too.”

 

 
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