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United Services looks at possible children’s museum in St. Charles County

logoUnited Services for Children, a prominent nonprofit agency that for more than 40 years has provided therapy and preschool education for children, is exploring the possibility of creating a children’s museum in St. Charles County – exploring being the operative word.

Denise Liebel, president and chief executive officer for United Services, said last week that the agency has been studying the idea for several years and may make a decision to move ahead by early 2017.

The idea of a children’s museum arose out of changes in how preschool care and therapy soon will be offered. Since the 1990s, federal law mandated that school districts provide these services. However, for years, local school districts were growing so fast they couldn’t keep up, so they contracted with United Services to provide them, Liebel said. But by next August, all local districts will be able to offer early childhood programs in-house.

United Services will continue to provide pediatric therapy and early intervention services, however, with an orientation toward children under age 3. Liebel said the agency has had several years to plan for the change.

“What we have been able to do, as any nonprofit should do, first of all you have to ask yourself if are we meeting unmet needs in the community. Are we addressing them?” Liebel said. “If your answer is no, everybody is doing it too, then you might be in the wrong business. The goal is no duplication of services.”

A children’s museum came out of brainstorming by staff, families and supporters about the agency’s future – a half-page article in a trade publication sparked the initial interest. Research and visits to more than 20 museums around the country helped fluff it out. The emphasis now is on actively pursuing the idea with stakeholders. Currently, no final decisions have been made.

“Parents were looking for a place to go with their child, no matter with a child with a disability or a typically developing child, where the family could do things together all year long,” Liebel said. “There is just a vacancy in this community for something like that.”

There are already several children’s museums in the St. Louis region such as the Magic House and City Museum, which Liebel said are outstanding facilities. But population growth is shifting to the western part of the St. Louis region and families from areas to the west of St. Charles County also may be attracted to a more local museum.

Liebel said the agency’s museum would be designed from the ground up with accessibility being the priority for all visitors. A museum, she said, would not be a departure from what the agency has always done.

“This is an addition to what we are doing, this is not an alternative,” Liebel said. “We are not going out of business, we have critical work to do.”

But it’s an addition that will require a major capital investment – rough estimates suggest it may cost $20 million or more. In presentations to local community groups, agency officials envision a 40,000-square-foot museum building with additional space for preschool, therapy services and administration. Projected revenue may amount to about $1.3 million without fundraising or grant support. Annual attendance is projected to be about 189,000 people.

Details on the location, size and construction timetable for the museum are yet to be determined.

Since last year, Liebel has quietly briefed local governments such as the Lake Saint Louis Board of Aldermen and the St. Charles County Library District Board of Trustees and has met with other stakeholders including businesses and other organizations. “We can’t do it alone,” she stressed.

Depending on partnerships that can be formed, the agency will decide whether or not to pursue the idea next year and start a fundraising campaign. Liebel said the agency also is looking for financing options including the sale of the agency’s current building in St. Peters, tax credits, partnerships with state and local governments, donations or leasing a building or land.

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