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Celebrating a milestone, planning for the future

‘I didn’t set out to start a business – I just had a dream’

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April 29, 2024

LA CROSSE – A lot has changed since the Children’s Museum of La Crosse opened its doors in 1999.

What started as the dream of Anne Snow – museum founder and outgoing director – has evolved into a West Central Wisconsin hub for education through play for thousands of children. 

Turning a daydream into reality

As Snow – who is retiring this year – looks to hand the reins over to incoming Executive Director Ann Christianson, she said she can’t help but look back at the museum’s 25-year journey.

“I moved here from New Orleans where there was a great children’s museum,” Snow said. “Almost instantly after relocating here, I missed our children’s museum. It was winter, and I had a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, and I didn’t know what people did with their children in the winter. And I wanted a children’s museum because I thought they are great places for kids and families.”

The wheels, Snow said, continued to turn as she continued to think about how she could make her dream a reality.

“I (thought) we could maybe get a warehouse – maybe we could get some folks to build some exhibits,” she said. “I never, ever thought there was going to be a 30,000-square-foot children’s museum that would have more than a million visitors. I didn’t set out to start a business – I just had a dream.”

As fate would have it, Snow said she met three movers and shakers in the La Crosse community – Judy Bouffleur, Ellen Heinecke and Marilyn Ondell – women she affectionately refers to as “our founding ladies.”

Snow said the late trio backed her dream by helping her form the museum’s first board of directors and introduced her to people, clubs, organizations and groups in the community that could help her bring the dream to fruition.

“They recruited the first board of directors, but they didn’t recruit their friends – they recruited their friends’ children,” she said. “They did that intentionally so it would be the next generation to get this project off the ground.”

Snow said it was Bouffleur who connected her with Charles & Marjorie Collins, the folks who donated the building the children’s museum is housed in.

“That was a huge donation,” she said. “To get a building is sometimes the biggest hurdle children’s museums have. And obviously, it can be expensive if you have to build new. So, for us to be given this beautiful 30,000-square-foot building downtown was amazing.” 

As with most big projects, Snow said the board had a feasibility study done – which indicated a children’s museum was not a possibility or realistic. 

She said the company cited seven objections that led to the decision, some of which were:

  • Nobody knows what a children’s museum is.
  • No one will donate their money to renovate this building into a children’s museum.
  • Downtown was a terrible location for a museum – there was no parking downtown.

Snow said the dream could easily have died right there.

But coming from a family of entrepreneurs, she said she was determined to make it happen.

“We took all seven of those objections, did a lot of research and got experts who knew what they were talking about to write letters to all of the potential donors,” she said.

Snow said the letters addressed each of those objections and showed how they could be overcome.

“By the time we were done with our letter campaign, everybody was asking when they could start giving us money,” she said. “The feasibility study said we couldn’t raise $1.9 million, but we ended up raising $2.6 million.”

Snow said one woman, Gertrude Salzer Gordon, donated $1 million toward the capital campaign.

The building that houses the museum, she said, is named in her honor and memory.

“I thought spending $30,000 on a feasibility study was nuts,” she said. “It felt like a ton of money to me. And we could have failed right then and there.”

With that said, however, Snow said she encourages folks who are undertaking a big project to have a feasibility study done.

“If they uncover two or three things out there in the community that are objections that you can meet head-on and educate folks about before you go out and ask about the money – you are much better off,” she said. “It’s important to know if the community will embrace your project or not.”

25 years of momentum

The museum held its official grand opening in 1999, welcomed its one-millionth guest in 2016 and had a record-setting attendance year in 2018 of 77,000 visitors.

In 2023, Snow said, the museum surpassed its 2018 numbers – welcoming more than 80,000 visitors.

“Memberships reached an all-time high in 2023, with 1,950 member families,” she said. “We’ve also had more than 1.4 million visitors since our opening. 

COVID caused a setback

Like many other organizations, Snow said, the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the museum – shutting it down for 15 months.

During that time, she said many of the museum’s employees found other jobs and many of its community partners had staff changes.

When the museum reopened, Snow said it was similar to when it opened in 1999.

“We had just wrapped up a 20th-anniversary fundraising campaign in 2019 and had installed some brand-new exhibits no one was able to see or enjoy because COVID forced us to shut down,” she said. “When we reopened, people flocked to the museum and there was a whole new flock of people and children who came to enjoy the exhibits, including our new Mississippi River exhibit.”

Snow said the museum is still rebuilding its staff – “but we’re getting there.”

Changing of the guard

Christianson said she has already been shadowing Snow as she transitions into the executive director position upon Snow’s retirement.

A firm believer in learning through free play, Christianson said accepting the role was a no-brainer for her.

Though she said she doesn’t anticipate any major changes to the children’s museum, she wants them – as it regroups and rebuilds the staff – to re-focus on the museum’s mission. 

“For the immediate future, the No. 1 focus is to re-focus on the mission and let the community know we’re here and are stronger and more alive than ever, and that we have a commitment to the community as we have for the last 25 years,” she said. 

Christianson said she also hopes to widen the museum’s reach to the entire region.

“This children’s museum is a resource, not only for parents and children in the community-at-large, but also for schools, the YMCA and other nonprofits or youth organizations who come to us,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of opportunity to grow and become a regional-type children’s museum.” 

Christianson said that means reaching out to surrounding communities and finding out what they’re all about – then finding ways to incorporate those things into future exhibits, just as they have with some of their current exhibits and how they touch on the museum’s community and its surroundings.

Growth, Christianson said, is part of her plan for the future, but that doesn’t necessarily mean outgrowing the physical building.

“Growth is not always about size,” she said. “I think you create a space that’s going to allow for a greater impact on the community around us and be able to accept more visitors and more memberships. I believe this place is special – and this specific location in this building could be a historic place.”

Christianson said the current location is important because of the named donor and its location downtown.

“There’s an incredible amount of people who live in the area who come downtown,” she said. “The river is right there, and the traffic to the downtown area makes it easily accessible. It’s a landmark where it is.”  

New exhibits

The museum, Snow said, is planning three new exhibits for this milestone year. 

“One is called Draw Alive, and it mixes art with science and technology,” she said. “We’re also bringing music into the museum this year – in what shape or form has not been defined yet.”

Snow said the museum will also get a new fire station this year, which is sponsored by La Crosse-headquartered Trane.

“Kids will learn about HVAC with this new exhibit,” she said. “It’ll be like the ‘ABCs of HVAC,’ and kids will learn a bit about hot air and cold air, and how to move air and divert air.”

The museum currently has a 1966 La France fire truck in its building and a kid-sized fire station and a make-believe burning house.

“We’re going to build a brand-new big fire station for our truck to come out of with all sorts of fun, educational interactives,” Snow said.

She said the new fire station will incorporate a climbing and crawling structure, which is something the museum doesn’t have a lot of right now.

The HVAC portion of the exhibit, Snow said, will have air tubes kids can climb on and crawl through. 

“Trane wants to give back to the community, and they want to do something fun and interactive for us,” she said.

Once the new fire station is complete, Snow said, she plans to “head off into the sunset.”

“I’ll be visiting many children’s museums with my grandchildren,” she said. “But this children’s museum has been a fairy tale for me – a dream come true – thanks to so many wonderful people in this community.” 

Continued celebration

Snow said the museum has held several celebrations this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary.

She said more are planned, but details are still being worked out.

The museum, Snow said, also recently unveiled a new website (funmuseum.org).

“The new website is a good way to check out the events and happenings at the museum,” she said. “We encourage folks to watch for all sorts of good stuff coming up.”

TBN
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