Manifesting a Museum
With Revitalization Funding secured, Great River Children’s Museum to open next year
By Kevin Allenspach | Photography by Paul Middlestaedt
The seeds of inspiration that soon will sprout as the Great River Children’s Museum (GRCM) were planted by a small group of people around a dinner table more than a decade ago at the home of Glen Palm and Jane Ellison.
Palm was about to retire after a 30-year career as a professor at St. Cloud State University, culminating as chair of the child and family studies department. Wondering what he would do in the next chapter of his life, he pondered the needs of Central Minnesota and thought he might have enough time for what he wanted to do all along: create a local place where kids from birth through their pre-teen years could play in a positive environment.
The idea drew excited conversation from his guests as they conceptualized a children’s museum. Palm’s good friend Greg Reigstad, a longtime adjunct faculty member and later an administrator at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, wanted to collaborate. So did Deb Campbell and Becky Coborn. Campbell was the early childhood family education director for the Sauk Rapids-Rice school district, and Coborn’s three children were grown, so she was about to begin a second career as a parent educator.
Palm’s wife, however, tempered her enthusiasm.
“For a long time, I kept my distance because I thought this was way too big of a project and there was no way it was going to happen,” said Ellison, who a few years earlier—after her own kids had moved out—earned a graduate certificate in infant and early childhood mental health from the University of Minnesota. “But it was Glen’s retirement dream, and I wish people could see how many hours he has put into this, because it’s basically been like another full-time job.”
It may be impossible to quantify his impact, and that of the others—all of whom now are either a GRCM board or committee member. But their vision will become reality late in 2024 when more than 30,000 square feet of wonder will open to our smallest citizens on an investment of more than $10 million in public, private and in-kind contributions. It will be the second-largest children’s museum in the state, behind only the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul.
“Children are born to learn,” Palm said. “They learn by doing. When you have a successful children’s museum, the kids are engaged, and they’re smiling and having fun. This will be a place where people can come together and make connections and memories. It’s not home and it’s not work or school. It’s a third space where families will come from all backgrounds and learn from and about each other. We want the exhibits to reflect who we are as a community and as a region.”
Palm, Ellison and their friends—more than can be named here—poured themselves into the project. Their efforts eventually mobilized tangible resources. In 2018, Liberty Bank donated its former downtown St. Cloud building to house the museum. Other large grants and donations followed—including two $1 million gifts in 2021, one from Barbara and Rollie Anderson (owners of Anderson Trucking Service) and another from the Coborn Family Foundation. In January, the Initiative Foundation awarded its largest St. Cloud-area grant ($199,000) under the Minnesota Main Street Revitalization Program. And in May came the linchpin: $7 million from a Minnesota Legislature capital investment bill.
“Persistence has been the overriding virtue that got them to this point,” said Don Hickman, interim co-president and vice president for community and workforce development at the Initiative Foundation. He has known Palm and Ellison since before the former was named winner of the Initiative Foundation’s 2009 Outstanding Leadership award and the latter directed the Foundation-supported Greater St. Cloud Thrive Initiative.
“This is an overnight sensation that took a decade to cultivate, and Glen and Jane deserve all the credit,” Hickman added. “They’ve been talking about this forever. Early on we gave them a modest feasibility grant of a few thousand dollars, and it’s amazing what they’ve done. As a one-time parent of small children, I know this museum will be especially attractive on those cold and wet days when you can’t be outside. And if one parent goes shopping while the other watches the kids, that’s going to be good for downtown. It can be a community magnet that will effectively raise the tide that lifts all businesses.”
The children’s museum is projected to attract 125,000 visitors each year with a self-sufficient budget. Those are some big and welcome expectations for Dave Kleis, who has been St. Cloud’s mayor since 2005.
“We’re going through a huge effort to revitalize downtown,” said Kleis, previously a state senator for 11 years. “Historically, it’s brought a lot of college students to bars and restaurants. Post-COVID, downtowns are different. We’ve got to try to draw people for activities or events or to live there. We’re trying to do a combination of all of that here. Before this, the new YMCA was probably the last example where we had this kind of collaboration in St. Cloud. Families and kids are something that people from all across the spectrum can support.”
The museum’s eight core exhibits will reach a range of demographics and the more than 80 elementary schools that are within a reasonable drive of downtown St. Cloud. “That’s the aspect that resonates with most people,” said Cassie Miles, who became GRCM executive director in 2020 thanks to a Legacy Grant. “Currently, if they have the means to do it, those teachers have to pack up a bus and ride a long way. We want them to have something closer to home, and this is going to put Central Minnesota on the map in a different way as a quality destination.”
Indeed, some people are already considering their visit. Three in particular plan to come all the way from the East Coast—the 2-, 5- and 7-year-old grandchildren of Palm and Ellison.
“They’re perfect ages for this,” she said. “We can’t wait.”
Minnesota Main Street Economic Revitalization Grants
Minnesota Main Street Economic Revitalization funding is provided by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), which allocated $4.5 million to the Initiative Foundation for Central Minnesota projects. Six communities—Brainerd, Cold Spring, Little Falls, Long Prairie, Pine River and St. Cloud—successfully applied and met eligibility criteria. The investment is anticipated to have a total economic impact of more than $32 million.