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Mayor fears Hands On! may move out

Nathan Baker • Updated Sep 12, 2015 at 7:27 PM

Even with a 28-year history in Johnson City and a six-year-old offer of free land and $1 million left on the table by city leaders, the Hands On! Regional Museum might be considering a move to another community.

Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin met with Hands On! board member Steve Scheu and Executive Director Andy Marquart two months ago to discuss the educational museum’s future in the city and offers it received from other communities to relocate.

“They told me they had an offer from a community in the region potentially to support them with an alternate location, and the support went deeper than that,” Van Brocklin said Friday. “They had one other possibility locally that was not quite as far removed, but it would take the museum outside the municipal limits.”

The mayor said the museum administrators outlined what they believed they would need to build a new museum, a plan held by the overseeing nonprofit for years, and asked what Johnson City may be able to offer to help the organization stay.

In 2009, before Van Brocklin’s election, the then-seated City Commission verbally committed a tract of vacant land to be the museum’s new site, on King Street near what is slated to be a city-built park and stormwater detention project, and promised $1 million to help pay for construction.

In researching that meeting, Van Brocklin said no money was formally earmarked for the project, meaning the current commissioners could renege on the pledge, but “the commitment was so firm” at the time, he believed they would have a difficult time doing so.

At the meeting the mayor described, he said Marquart and Scheu priced the initial phase of the new museum construction project at $15 million. They believed $5 million could be supplied through state grants and $5 million could be raised locally by the nonprofit organization’s own fundraising. They asked about the prospect of $5 million in municipal support.

“That’s one of the reasons I asked for an economic development fund to be created during the city budget process,” Van Brocklin said, noting the Commission voted down the creation of the account. “It was one way, potentially, if we reached the point where we needed to raise a portion of that, we would already have money on hand to support that.”

Reached Friday by email, Marquart said the museum relocation project was “very preliminary and we are really not in a position to disclose much publicly about the project at the moment.” When asked specifically about Hands On!’s potential move outside the city, he said “there is really nothing to discuss at this point.”

This isn’t the first time the museum has been rumored to be considering a move outside of town.

In 2008, when the regional museum was one of the only strong anchors in downtown Johnson City, fears were sparked that Kingsport’s City Manager, Johns Campbell, who previously served in the same job in Johnson City, was trying to coax Hands On! to the Model City.

Board members then, including Scheu, said they were examining all strategic options for the museum, but would not confirm any potential relocation sites. Eventually, the rumors quieted, and the museum stayed in Johnson City.

Two weeks ago, at a public meeting to discuss the potential design of Downtown Plaza, the park slated to take the place of the former U-Haul building in downtown Johnson City, Marquart said the museum’s board was still in the planning process for the new building.

“For years, we’ve been in re-purposed, 100-year-old buildings that were never meant to be our permanent home,” he said.

Bringing in between 65,000 and 80,000 visitors each year, Van Brocklin said the Hands On! Regional Museum was an important asset to the city, and he would like to see it stay here.

“I think the commission fully understands the value of Hands On! to the community,” he said. “It would be a shame to see them move to a different community.”

But before pledging more support, Van Brocklin said the Commission may need to see more of an effort on the museum board’s part.

“It’s safe to say the Commission is concerned about making a very significant contribution before Hands On! puts a fundraising committee together and before they begin to show progress toward the $5 million they hope to raise,” he said.

The museum also hopes to conduct a study of the effect of its programs on the economies of Johnson City and the surrounding region.

The museum needs $30,000 for the study, and has asked the Johnson City Commission and the Johnson City Development Authority to each provide $15,000.

So far, the JCDA has approved the expense, but the Commission “is aware of the request and is considering it,” Van Brocklin said.

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