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Museum Fund Still $8M Down as Deadline Looms

The San Diego Children’s Museum in Downtown’s Marina District is nearing the end of its capital campaign of its quest to raise nearly $22 million in funding needed to complete the rebuilding and expansion of the museum.

The museum, also known as Museo de los Ninos, is slated to triple the space and double the amount of visitors when the 50,000-square-foot facility is completed in early 2006.

Since construction began in 2003, the museum at Island and Front streets has raised nearly $14 million through donations, benefits, grants and the sale of land to Vancouver, B.C.-based developer Pinnacle International. The company is building condominiums next to the museum, but the museum is still left with finding the remaining funding, which stands at $8 million to $9 million.

The funding must come before the May 12 deadline given to the museum by the Centre City Development Corp., Downtown’s redevelopment agency, or the museum will have to forfeit its investment. The agency, which entered into an agreement with the museum in 2003, would then purchase the property for $10.

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“We are very interested in having the children’s museum there,” said Pam Hilton, senior vice president of the CCDC. “They have needed to raise major funds since 1993. Nevertheless now is the time to complete the facility and they still need major donations.”

Hilton said the possibility of an extension is not known at this time.

As the deadline looms closer the museum is moving ahead, branching out its fund-raising capabilities by hiring local marketing agency Alternative Strategies in January to help get the word out about the museum and its capital campaign.

“The main impetus is to let people know and remind people that we still need support for the Children’s Museum,” said Bruce Hartman, marketing director for the museum. “That the campaign is still active and that we want to open soon.”

The museum, which opened in San Diego in 1983, previously operated out of a 50-year-old warehouse that was partially condemned. The museum closed it doors in 2002 for construction moving its administrative offices to Bankers Hill.

Teaming up with Alternative Strategies, which is handling the advertising services pro bono and providing public relations services at a reduced fee, the museum has launched a comprehensive marketing campaign, including print, broadcast and outdoor advertisements.

The museum has allocated $50,000 toward the campaign in hopes of reaching the goal before the deadline.

The campaign includes a three-month placement of six billboards around Downtown, and a billboard at the Interstate 5 and 805 merge, which will be up throughout March, advertisements in local print publications, signage at local malls, and radio and TV advertisements.


Small Fund-Raising Window

Kay Wagner, the executive director for the museum, said she is hopeful that the museum will find the funding, but recognizes that the timeline presents a challenge.

“It is very difficult to raise money and it is not just the Children’s Museum, but all museums are having trouble,” Wagner said. “Two years is not a realistic timeline, five years in this economic condition is not an adequate amount of time to raise all the money.”

In the meantime, the museum is hoping through the marketing campaign that relief will come.

“The ad campaign we hope will bring in money, but the main purpose is to let people know that we are still here and that we need support from the community,” Hartman said. “It (the museum’s campaign) sort of went off people’s radar screens.”

William Lopez, the president of Alternative Strategies, said the company, which takes on three pro bono nonprofits per year, accepted the museum as a client because it knew it could help.

“It seems that everyone in the area was aware that there was a children’s museum but people didn’t really know what happened to it,” Lopez said, referring to the museum’s closing. “From now to May, we are focused on making them (the public) aware of the necessary funding. It will be a full advertising campaign.”

With the marketing campaign and the help from the community, Wagner said the goal is attainable.

“We have a lot of irons in the fire,” she said. “It really takes a good deal of time for the momentum to build up and for people to realize that this is something they really need.”

Currently, San Diego is the only major city without an operating children’s museum, according to the Association of Children’s Museums.

“Our museum is very unique because it is not a place where it’s a little play land for children,” Wagner said. “It is very much about learning through the arts. I really think that most people support a children’s museum Downtown, particularly one that is so established as ours and one that has a national reputation for being a really wonderful museum.

“We feel that we are really in the forefront of changing children’s museums. In the past, children’s museums haven’t always been addressing higher levels of thinking skills, they have always been addressing things that really engage children. I think that our museum sort of sets the tone for that and that many other museums have copied the (San Diego) Children’s Museum.”


Big-Name Donors

The majority of the museum’s fund raising has come from private donations from notable San Diegans, including David Copley, the publisher of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel, writer of the Dr. Seuss children’s books.

The largest donation has been $1 million, Wagner said.

“Companies can purchase a tile (in the donor plaza), put their name on the front of the building,” Wagner said. “And there are exhibition spaces that a company can sponsor.”

Naming rights will cost about $3 million to $7 million depending on the agreement, she said.

The museum is also marketing at a grass-roots level by asking the parents and children of the museum’s charter school, which enrolls 80 students, to write letters and voice their opinion on the need for the museum to local city officials.

Nationwide, children’s museums have been growing in stature, increasing to nearly 225 in 2005, nearly half of which have opened since the 1990s, according to the Association of Children’s Museums.

Many of these museums, including the San Diego Children’s Museum, are undergoing capital campaigns and soliciting funds to stay afloat, said Janet Rice Elman, the executive director of the association.

“On an ongoing basis, children’s museums (in addition to capital campaigns) are raising funds for general operations,” Rice Elman said. “So at any given time they are raising funds.”

However, most museums do not solicit help from advertising or public relations agencies per se but more from organizations or companies that specialize in fund raising, she said.

“I would not say that (hiring an ad or public relations agency) is common,” Rice Elman said. “This situation for the San Diego Children’s Museum is also extra special. Having a very specific date by which the funds must be raised is not a typical circumstance.

“Their decision to hire a PR agency to get the word out to the public is probably the best way to communicate the situation to let the general public know that this treasure has a deadline looming.”

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