A children’s museum long in the works might find a home in downtown Janesville—possibly in the vacant, historic former First National Bank property.
Officials for the nonprofit Children’s Museum of Rock County announced that they’ve shifted their focus to the 21,000-square-foot, former First National at 100 W. Milwaukee St. as the preferred location for a museum that’s been 12 years in planning.
Under plans unveiled this week, the Children’s Museum of Rock County Board of Directors said it’s launching a major public fundraising effort it hopes will fuel strategic plans to convert the building into a children’s museum and learning center. The nonprofit says the project could cost $3 million to $5 million, a major capital undertaking, but the downtown site offers a centralized location for such an amenity.
The move could put a children’s museum in the running as a potential suitor for the large-format former bank space, one of the downtown’s most prominent pieces of real estate in an area of Milwaukee Street that’s already seen millions of dollars in revitalization in the last few years.
The property’s owner, Forward Janesville's Forward Foundation, recently bought the property and has been considering multiple prospects for its reuse and preservation of the historic bank building.
Macy McBeth-Ryan, a board member, indicated that talks are still in early stages and the prospect of converting the former bank into a museum is “speculative.”
But she said the building’s size fits the group’s vision for a 16,000-square-foot museum that could operate as a learning lab for preschool-age children and provide science-and technology-related activities, dramatic play, arts and “sustainability” programming for children and teens.
McBeth-Ryan said the nonprofit has been in talks with the Forward Janesville and city officials.
“We’ve toured the space, and we think that it would be perfect for the children’s museum because it has the space we require,” McBeth-Ryan said.
“It can be built out in phases. It also has an outdoor area, and the historic nature of the building is a symbol of Janesville’s past. The way we can build it out will be innovative, and that will take us into the future.”
The children’s museum had planned to open an initial “incubator” site in shopping mall space at Uptown Janesville, but McBeth-Ryan said the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the use of public spaces has put those plans on hold.
Sarah Splinter, the museum’s board president, said that a downtown location at this point is one option, and one potential location being considered amid the pandemic. She said the museum intends to open in the mall space when crowd limits and public health restrictions ease.
The nonprofit began eyeing the former bank in October. Its interest in the property surfaced this week as part of an announcement of a $1.5 million capital campaign to launch a children’s museum downtown.
The former First National earlier had been tabbed for the Legacy Center, a museum planned by Blackhawk Community Credit Union to honor the history of union workers at the former General Motors assembly plant.
The credit union abandoned its plans to convert the 1913 bank building in spring. In fall, the credit union sold the property to a private, philanthropic fund administered through Forward Janesville, the city’s main chamber of commerce.
The chamber has told The Gazette it has commissioned a market study on the property, but so far it has not committed to any specific reuse or redevelopment of the former bank.
Now the nonprofit emerges as a potential suitor for the property, although McBeth-Ryan said Forward Janesville, whose philanthropic arm is made up of silent donors, has signaled that the 100 W. Milwaukee St. parcel likely has space for more than one development.
The children’s museum group also has discussed the project with city council members, McBeth-Ryan said.
She said the nonprofit is feeling out the city and other local nonprofits for what “creative, strategic or financial support” might be possible.
She said the group also is discussing the potential of asking for support via the city budget. McBeth-Ryan didn’t give other details of potential public-private partnerships the group might pursue.
The group also has been working on a handful of grants, and that funding could be dedicated to a first phase of planning, she said.
The former bank is in a tax-increment financing district that blankets downtown, and city officials recently have approved tax incentive packages for projects that would bring apartment developments downtown.
McBeth-Ryan said her group initially is trying to raise seed money through its own capital campaign.
The nonprofit also announced two Janesville companies—Westphal & Co. Electrical Construction and construction firm Ryan Inc. Central—have committed to match the group’s fundraising effort up to $5,000, a promise that under the match would represent $15,000.
McBeth-Ryan’s spouse, Ben Ryan, is a vice president at Ryan Inc. Central. In a statement this week, Ben Ryan boosted the fundraising effort and the proposed children’s museum.
“There’s no better way to invest in our community’s future than by committing to our children and supporting the Children’s Museum,” he said.
“We’re advocates of the educational enrichment and cultural benefits that the museum will provide. We want to ensure the best quality of life not only for our employees, but for all the children, their families, and caregivers in Rock County.”
McBeth-Ryan said Westphal owner John Westphal has given the museum valuable “guidance and support” for years.
Westphal, she pointed out, was a member of the original steering committee when the children’s museum group formed in 2008.