YouZeum struggles with challenges to attract community

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 3:08 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 10, 2010
Paul Morpurgo, 6, from Russell Boulevard Elementary School takes a virtual bike ride on the Katy Trail at the YouZeum on Wednesday, Nov. 25. Morpurgo participated in a day-long camp on the eve of Thanksgiving Day when all the schools were out.

COLUMBIA — Barbara Warn has been bringing her two grandchildren to the YouZeum in downtown Columbia since they were both 2 years old. She considers the year-old science museum a good place for hands-on activities for the children.

Warn, who teaches at West Junior High School, attended the teachers' night at the museum in October with her two grandchildren. She squatted on the floor and watched the children squeal in excitement at a 16-foot mechanical exhibit demonstrating the flow of blood and food through the body. 

Going to the YouZeum


Ages 14 and older: $8

Ages 4 to 13: $5

Children 3 and under: free


Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Explore & More Hours for children 7 and under:

Tuesday, Thursday and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to noon

Parent-child social group (for members)

Tuesday and Thursday, 8:30 to 10:30 a.m.

Home school family programming days (by appointment)

First and third Thursday of every month, noon to 4 p.m.


1991: The Boone County Medical Society Alliance, a group of physicians’ wives, and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce Health Committee propose a health science museum. Glenn McElroy and Ann Cohen give a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce Health Committee. They are the founding members of the YouZeum board. At that time, YouZeum was known as the Health Adventure Center.

1993: Michael Szewczyk joins the board.

1998: Missouri Department of Economic Development authorizes $250,000 in tax credits as part of the Neighborhood Assistance Program.

2003: YouZeum receives permission from the U.S. General Services Administration to use the Federal Building on Cherry Street.

2004: Ali Hussam and his team from the Strategic Technology Group at the MU School of Medicine, and Mark Brush of Brushmarks based in Los Angeles are approached to design exhibits. They work with Joe Graff of Graff Enterprises of Columbia.

2005: The state Department of Economic Development authorizes $236,953 in tax credits.

The project gets $750,000 from the federal government for renovations.

2007: The state authorizes $250,000 in tax credits.

May 1, 2008: The YouZeum opens to public.

October 2008: The state authorizes $125,000 in tax credits.

November 2008: Executive Director Gwen Robbins resigns.

July 2009: Lindsay Butcher joins the YouZeum as the educational director.

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On previous occasions, Warn brought children from Madison Elementary School near Moberly to tour the museum. "The children love the ambulance and computer challenges," she said. The emergency room exhibit recreates an ambulance where children can pretend they are doctors, nurses or paramedics working on virtual patients.

Despite Warn's enthusiasm, the YouZeum has had nowhere near its projected 60,000 visitors a year. The museum had 37,415 paid visitors from its opening in May 2008 through November of this year, according to Michael Szewczyk, chair of the YouZeum board of directors.

The interactive health science museum is learning the hard way that marketing, management and outreach are important in getting the attraction off the ground. It has recently turned to a new education director and theme-based activities to shore up community support for an attraction that has slashed operating hours, lost some channels of funding and is operating without an executive director.

On Aug. 20, the YouZeum cut its operating hours from six days or 42 hours a week to two full days a week — Fridays and Saturdays — for a total of 20 hours a week. The YouZeum calls these "back-to-school hours."

"If we don't see visitors when the schools are open, there is no point in keeping the museum open" as often, Szewczyk said.

The number of visitors and reduced operating hours coincide with difficulties in cash flow.

According to information the YouZeum is required to file with the IRS as part of its nonprofit status, the museum's deficit totaled $340,000 for the year ending in June 2008. Through June 2008 — the most recent period reflected in its public filings with the IRS — the YouZeum also reported outstanding bank loans of $674,000.

Szewczyk, who put $35,000 of his own money into the YouZeum, said he didn't want to discuss the museum's financial situation. He did say that utilities alone total about $4,000 a month.

A considerable amount of public funds have gone into the educational attraction. The museum received $750,000 in federal money, according to the Congressional Record. The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau has contributed $350,000.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau money came from the Tourism Development Fund that relies on a lodging tax at Columbia motels and hotels. "It does not come from local taxpayers," said Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Steiner said it is unlikely her board would recommend the Columbia City Council to approve any additional funding for operations but would be more likely to consider an exhibit that would attract visitors who would stay overnight.

"That's because there is a point in time when we need to say we have done our part to get you started," Steiner said. "The Tourism Development program was not meant to be a sustainable source of funding."

It took $2 million to open the YouZeum, an amount that includes private donations. The money was mostly spent on building renovation as well as staff and operations in days leading to the opening of the museum, Szewczyk said. The building is valued at about $6.5 million.

Last year, the Missouri Foundation for Health gave the YouZeum a two-year grant of $58,500 to provide area schools with a part-time consultant to offer technical assistance, training and resources to implement or improve school wellness policies.

This year, a Community Trust program of Boone Electric Cooperative granted the YouZeum a partial amount of its requested funds, said Christi Miller, communications specialist for the cooperative. She said the trust, which is funded by members of the cooperative when they round up their monthly electric bill to the next highest dollar and by unclaimed capital credits, wouldn't reveal the amount.

The museum has two full-time and six part-time employees. During special events, such as teacher's appreciation night, volunteers help out.

The executive director position has been vacant since Gwen Robbins resigned in November 2008. Robbins filed a lawsuit in early November against the museum alleging breach of contract.

One of Robbins' responsibilities as executive director was to raise money. Steiner said it's difficult to be both an administrator and raise funds to sustain operations. "That was a challenge for the previous administrator and will continue to be a challenge for current management," Steiner said.

Lindsay Butcher, director of education at the YouZeum, is trying to turn around the museum's fortunes.

Since she joined the YouZeum in July, Butcher has developed curriculum for school groups to use before and after field trips. She also organized a Halloween party with a Harry Potter theme and a teacher appreciation night this fall that Szewczyk said attracted about 300 teachers.

Interactive games, such as the Powerplant, are a big draw for school children, Butcher said. Cartoon characters — Tomato Girl and Broccoli Man — explain the benefits of vegetables and fruits as part of healthy eating. Visitors can also take a virtual cycle ride on the Katy Trail.

The YouZeum has also developed programs for children on days schools are closed.  "Science of Gross," "Kitchen Science" and "Brainaseum" allow children to handle models of internal organs or teach functions of the brain. For home schoolers, the museum has developed a program to teach about bones and dissection of brains.

Butcher is enthusiastic and has great ideas, Steiner said, "but they are going through a financial crunch that makes it difficult to realize those ideas."

The museum is housed in the former Federal Building on Cherry Street. The YouZeum acquired the property from the U.S. Department of Education under a public benefit conveyance for educational use for 30 years. According to the U.S. Office for Management, the approved application includes the operation of a health science museum.

Jim Bradshaw of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., said the YouZeum can continue using the building as long as the museum remains open. The YouZeum cannot use the building for any other purpose unless a different use is  approved, he said. 

"Whether there is one visitor or hundreds, they can keep the building," Bradshaw said.

An ongoing challenge for the YouZeum is finding new sponsors. Limited options for corporate donations aren't helping. "We have a limited corporate sector in Columbia and everybody asks them for funding," Steiner said. "And it is tough in the current economy."

Boone Hospital Center, where Szewczyk works as a occupational medicine specialist, calls itself an overall sponsor. The hospital has donated $850,000 to the YouZeum so far, said Kyle Sheafer, the hospital's director of marketing. Sheafer is also on the board of directors at the YouZeum.

Boone Hospital hosts educational and employee events and free community health screenings at the YouZeum. Some exhibits at the museum bear the hospital's name.

"Boone Hospital Center’s ongoing funding for the YouZeum is contingent upon the execution of the YouZeum’s business plan," Sheafer said.

Other donors include small businesses in the area such as Joe Machens dealerships, Missouri State Teachers Association, and Academic Employees Credit Union. The publishing house Scholastic Corp. donated books that were distributed to children for free at the teachers appreciation night.

The YouZeum has also forged relations with West Boulevard Elementary School. Children from the school visit the museum and have created exhibits that are displayed in the musuem.

Annual memberships that range from $35 to $1,000 have been rising and total more than 400, Szewczyk said.

For the future, the museum has some outstanding pledges and will work with the donors and corporate sponsors as well as explore grant opportunities, said Craig Brumfield, vice chair of the board of directors and business development officer for Callaway Bank.

Steiner, however, isn't optimistic about the YouZeum's long-term viability.

"There should be diversification in activities and exhibits but it is also difficult to do that when you have very limited funding," she said. "It's like a domino effect."


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Connie H December 16, 2009 | 8:43 a.m.

I have taken my God-child and his sibling to the Youzeum, and it was an enjoyable and positive experience. They are young and many exhibits for smaller children were not open at that time. Apparently, a third floor was due to open.

This year, I tried to take my niece, who visits only in summer. No luck. The place was rarely open. I hope it doesn't close before next summer, so that I can try again.

It's really a shame that the place is so close to the edge. With more time, it might catch on.

(Report Comment)
chris peters December 16, 2009 | 10:31 a.m.

Columbia could use an IMAX theater, be great in a college town, plus show other educational videos for the cities kids. I don't know how many times i've wished we had one.

(Report Comment)

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