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Grand opening for Cape Girardeau children's museum around the corner

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Members of the Teen Challenge program Jared Holt, left, and Luke Morgan, right, churn up a cloud of dust while working in the former Walther's building at 502 Broadway in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Thursday. The building will open in a few weeks as the new Discovery Playhouse.

CAPE GIRARDEAU — Step inside the door at 502 Broadway and imagine.

Replace the whirring of sanders and pounding hammers with the oohs and aahs of children and the hum of a Van de Graaff generator. To the left, the cab of a 1952 firetruck is ready. Next door, a mock bank with play-money ATM and tellers is in the final stages of preparation. At the back of the room, that generator — a static electricity producer that will make children's hair stand on end — sits on the floor waiting for its chance to amaze.

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While a visitor may wonder whether the work can be finished in time, Discovery Playhouse board president Kevin Priester said the hardest work of converting the vacant building is finished and that he's confident the children's museum will open soon.

"We are picking up steam," Priester said. "In the last three or four months, it has snowballed."

To show off the work that has been done, museum organizers held an adults-only fundraiser to help raise money to operate the museum once it opens. The fundraiser was also a chance to recognize the lengthy list of individuals and businesses who have given their time and treasure to make the museum a reality.

Priester, whose day job is water system manager for the city, said the Discovery Playhouse has become a labor of love. "Oh God, I live here," he said. "And I am not the only one, by any stretch."

Recently it was a crew from Teen Challenge helping with sanding stairs, scraping the second story floor and other jobs. But so many others have helped out that Priester is hesitant to start singling out anyone for fear of offending someone left out. "You could fill the newspaper," he said. "It has been a huge community effort."

The Discovery Playhouse operated from 2006 until mid-2007 in West Park Mall in a 1,400-square-foot space. As part of the DREAM Initiative for Cape Girardeau, the museum was awarded Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits — $250,000 total — to attract donors to put it in a permanent home. Businesses that donate can use the credits to reduce their state tax bills by 50 percent of the amount they give, making the credits worth $500,000 to the museum.

Recently, the playhouse received one of its biggest pledges yet — $78,000 from a donor who did not wish to be named at this time, Priester said. That brought the fundraising total to $285,000, he said, with about $50,000 of tax credits remaining if additional donors can be found by April 1.

The tax advantages of a donation can dramatically reduce the actual cost of a gift. In addition to getting half the donation back as a reduction in state taxes, donations are deductible on federal income tax forms. The money must come from a business, but for a small-business owner who treats profits as personal income, the federal tax savings can be as much as 35 percent.

"You still have to be willing to invest in the community, but the impact is just a fraction of the actual amount," Priester said.

Volunteers are still needed to help prepare the first floor to open. "If I am here and they want to come in and do something, I will find them something," he said.

The building has undergone a transformation. A new roof, heavily insulated and made of a white material that reflects heat, will keep costs down. A heating and cooling system salvaged from the old K's Merchandise building will keep the building comfortable. New windows, new plate glass on the ground floor and other improvements have transformed the once-vacant building.

"It is a big step for downtown, for Broadway, for a lot of things," said Marla Mills, executive director of Old Town Cape. "It's a great destination, and if we had hand-picked it based on the strategic plan, we couldn't have done any better."

Revitalizing the Broadway corridor is a big part of the DREAM Initiative, a state-sponsored program that developed a master plan for three sections of downtown. Priester said Bill Shivelbine, a board member of the playhouse and owner of Shivelbine's Music Store, told him that the playhouse "is an ember we are all blowing on."

Shivelbine could not be reached, but Mills said she shares the sentiment. "I think he means it is just the start. The vision will only grow, like a fire, and when it takes off it means just the start of something big."

Volunteer Kelly Morton is helping coordinate the fundraiser. A mother of two, including an 11-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son, Morton said she is excited that the museum is close to being ready. "This is a long time coming to Cape," she said. "It can do nothing but bring us up. I am a huge downtown advocate and the closer we get the more excited I am about the possibilities."

The March 31 goal for opening doesn't have much flexibility. The museum already scheduled its first traveling exhibit; "What's Bugging Belva," a Purdue University depiction of insect life that arrives April 19.

Fixing the opening date was important, Priester said. "We had to put ourselves under some kind of a deadline," he said. "We won't be what we will eventually be, by any stretch, but we had to get it done."


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