Orpheum's board seeks proposals for building new museum

Orpheum's board seeks proposals for building new museum

CHAMPAIGN – The people who run the Orpheum Children's Science Museum think it might be better off in different quarters than the historic 95-year-old Orpheum Theatre building in downtown Champaign.

So they've put out a request for proposals asking local developers if they would be interested in building a new, larger children's museum, and for their ideas about a potential reuse of the theater building.

The open-ended request went out to about 20 developers and local officials on Dec. 11, with responses due by March 16.

"We're trying to provide a fairly blank canvas," said James Quisenberry, president of the museum's board of directors. "We have been tied to the theater building for a number of years. As we've gotten further along with the renovation projects and saw how the downtown has evolved, we decided to open ourselves up to what the possibilities are."

Driving the decision is the fact that the theater building, at 346 N. Neil St., provides only limited space. The museum is housed in 3,500 square feet of space in the front of the Orpheum building, with 9,500 square feet of unused space in the theater's auditorium.

The museum's board of directors would like a new facility with between 35,000 and 40,000 square feet of space.

"We want to build a first-class children's museum – that's the bottom line," said Bill Ackermann, vice president of the museum's board. "The Orpheum, with a sloped (auditorium) floor, doesn't make the best children's museum."

According to Quisenberry, wanting a bigger facility is not unrealistic. Normal has a downtown 30,000-square-foot children's museum that is highly successful, and Decatur has a 25,000-square-foot museum, he said.

"You look at the resources (Champaign-Urbana) has with regard to science education, we ought to have a museum as nice and developed as Decatur or Normal," Quisenberry said.

The Orpheum museum's board of directors is suggesting two possible scenarios for redevelopment:

– The theater would be purchased by a developer, and the museum would use the proceeds from the sale to relocate.

– The theater would be purchased by a developer, and the developer, in partnership with the museum, would redevelop the Orpheum Theatre building and two adjacent vacant lots owned by the city, to the north and south of the theater, into residential, retail, theater and museum facilities.

Museum Executive Director Sonya Darter said an ideal scenario would be to develop a new multistory building north of the museum, where a bus station formerly stood. The new building could offer retail on the first floor, two or three floors for a children's science museum, and additional floors offering condominiums.

The theater auditorium could then be updated to become a 500-seat facility where plays, ballet and concerts could be performed, she said.

Darter said a 500-seat auditorium would complement, not compete with, the Virginia Theatre downtown, which she said has roughly double that amount of seating.

The theater's auditorium is scheduled to undergo a $500,000 renovation, starting in February, which will include restoration and replacement of plaster moldings, new drywall and painting.

The National Park Service is providing a $250,000 grant for the work, which the museum is matching with its own funds with the help of a bequest from the estate of Bruce Creamer, who was president of the musuem's board from 1999 to 2002. Mr. Creamer died Dec. 15, 2007, and left the museum a large bequest. His will specified that the exact amount of the bequest should not be publicly released, Ackermann said.

Developer Mike Royse, president of One Main Development, said his firm has contacted museum officials to further explore the redevelopment proposal.

"We're interested," he said. "The answer will be coming up with a killer use for the theater and a great use for the children's museum.

"The biggest challenge will be finding funding solutions for these great ideas." Royse added. "If we all have a can-do attitude, we can look for grants and we can figure out a way to address these things."

The Orpheum Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a city landmark. The building is also protected by a preservation easement held by the Preservation and Conservation Association that requires the association's agreement to exterior and interior changes.

The museum is a not-for-profit corporation. The children's science museums in Normal and Decatur are operated by their park districts, but the executive director of the Champaign Park District, Bobbie Herakovich, said that isn't likely to happen soon with the Orpheum museum.

"The park district doesn't have the financial ability to take over another older building," she said. "It doesn't make sense for us. However, Champaign-Urbana probably deserves a full-fledged children's museum."

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