Hands On! packing its bags for move to Gray

Robert Houk • Mar 25, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Despite having its funding request turned down by the Washington County Commission last month, the Hands On! Regional Museum is on schedule to relocate its operations to the Gray Fossil Site and Natural Museum.

Andy Marquart, the executive director of Hands On!, said he expects the museum will complete its move from downtown Johnson City to Gray by late spring.

“We’ve got a few exhibits still being custom fabricated for us, but we expect to close our downtown site by May or early June,” Marquart said last week. “There will be existing exhibits moving with us to Gray.”

A New Home

Hands On! signed a contract with East Tennessee State University in 2016 to relocate the museum to the Gray Fossil Site, where it will manage the museum, exhibits and gift shop. In fact, the Hands On! staff has been overseeing those operations for more than a year.

Marquart said the deal allows ETSU to “concentrate its resources on research” rather than marketing and merchandise. He said the agreement with ETSU also allows the newly branded Hands On! Discovery Center to use 12,000 square feet of space at the fossil site for interactive exhibits that will appeal to students of all ages.

“We will create a social atmosphere where you create your own path to discovery,” Marquart said. “Exhibits will be interactive and based on imagination and exploration.”

Not A Simple Request

Hands On! officials appeared before Washington County commissioners in February to ask the county for an annual funding commitment of $50,000 over the next 10 years to help solidify the museum’s move to Gray. Commissioners balked at the request, with several arguing it could establish a slippery slope where other nonprofits expect the same treatment.

Commissioner Greg Matherly, who chairs the board, said many of the same arguments were made in the late 1990s when officials with the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival asked the county to make a similar financial commitment for the construction of an international storytelling center. After months of debate, commissioners agreed to help fund that project.

Matherly said recently some of his colleagues are working to put the Hands On! request back on the table.

“They are looking at it as an economic development tool and as a community investment,” Matherly said.

Even so, he said he doesn’t expect the commission to take up the matter again anytime soon. He said with work on a new county budget set to begin, commissioners will be looking to establish tougher rules for funding nonprofits.

“The commission has been working in the past few years to reduce the county’s funding of nonprofits,” Matherly said.

A Minor Setback

Marquart said the Hands On! board was disappointed by the commission’s decision, but it hasn’t changed the organization’s strategy. He said the museum had hoped to secure public funding, as it has from the Johnson City Commission, to “help jumpstart” its private fundraising efforts. Marquart said Hand On! will simply begin the private fundraising phase sooner than it had planned.

Meanwhile, Hands On! officials hope county officials will have a change of heart once they see the economic and tourism benefits to be derived from having the new discovery center in Gray. Marquart said consultants conservatively estimate the first phase of the relocation project could have a $2.1 million impact on the region.

“The fossil site in Gray is a dynamic tourist attraction,” he said. “There are very few communities that have a working fossil dig site. This is hard science.”

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