Children’s Museum of E.C. Closes Play Spaces, to Launch Early Learning Program
organization cites membership growth, lack of resources for closure
The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire announced in early July that its Board of Directors had officially decided to close the Play Spaces in Menomonie and Chippewa Falls, citing unprecedented membership growth and a lack of vital resources for the Play Spaces. Both locations closed on July 14.
The Play Spaces were originally launched as a pilot project by the museum to support communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, created after receiving a $500,000 ARPA grant. CMEC had also hoped to eventually incorporate a preschool and child development center along with the Play Spaces. That grant was awarded on Oct. 27, 2021, and needed to be utilized between Nov. 1, 2021, and Oct. 31, 2022, causing CMEC to move swiftly to create the Play Spaces.
Museum CEO Michael McHorney pointed to revenue structure, the museum’s own launch of its new early learning program, and other factors as key reasons the Play Spaces were no longer sustainable to operate.
“To make the model work, it basically requires flipping how a children’s museum is typically funded. In our case in Eau Claire, the annual budget is 90% earned revenue and 10% contributed revenue. That is a difficult proposition in rural communities where philanthropic resources are more scarce than in urban areas,” McHorney said.
With the CMEC’s grand opening and the launch of its early learning program, the original hope was to expand the early learning program and see a major shift in its annual budget structure, which would support additional resources. That did not come to fruition.
“With the work being done in Eau Claire to address the childcare shortage, CMEC hoped it could perhaps expand that program where it would lead to 50% earned, 50% contributed revenue,” McHorney said. “This would’ve enabled larger operating hours and a full-time director working in the community to build awareness and partnerships.”
According to a recent update from the museum, CMEC found that it would need to raise $100,000 annually to support Play Spaces operations, while at the same time it is still finishing raising capital for its new museum in downtown Eau Claire, which opened in January.
While a dramatic rise in CMEC memberships is surely a positive thing – CMEC now has a whopping 3,866 member families – it also overwhelmed the organization and staff, who were also undertaking the new early learning program.
CMEC’s preschool program will roll into action this September for children ages 6 months-5 years, including a 4-year-old kindergarten program with before- and after-school care. The preschool’s capacity is 60 children, while the 4-K’s capacity is set at 18 children in the morning or afternoon sessions.
As stated by Lydia Ekenstedt, director of the program, in a media release, “This program is inspired by the philosophies of Montessori and Reggio Emilia, where children will be presented with a warm, beautiful environment that promotes exploration, discovery, and the freedom to get messy!”
CMEC is partnering with Peace Tree Child Care, which Ekenstedt also directs, to run the new early learning program. The early enrollment waiting list was nearly full as of July 21.