The voyage to Discovery
Discovery Museum closes in on opening day

Electricity sizzles between a spark gap inside the future home of Durango Discovery Museum. Thanks largely to community support, the museum is set to open this October./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Christine Rasmussen

Durango Discovery Museum executive director Claire Bradshaw addressed the crowd through solar-powered audio equipment at the museum recent groundbreaking ceremony: “I just have to take in this moment, as this event marks an incredible milestone for the museum, this community and the entire Four Corners,” she said. “1I’m here to tell you – we’re doing it!”

A sizable crowd that included several of Durango’s civic leaders came out to celebrate the official groundbreaking for Phase II of the Durango Discovery Museum, which is set to open this October. Phase II will entail plumbing, electrical, heating and interior design on the Powerhouse and an adjacent building where classrooms and offices will be housed, as well as the construction of an outdoor plaza.

“As I look around today, I see an incredible spectrum of ages, which is exactly our goal – to create an interactive science center for all ages,” said Bradshaw. “It’s because of the youth that we work so hard: we hope to inspire curiosity in you, so you’re equipped to make scientific discoveries and be part of tomorrow’s energy solutions.”

At the April 15 ceremony, Mayor Leigh Meigs thanked the Durango City Council of 2002 for committing to preserving the historical Powerhouse. “The council really did the right thing and took a chance to preserve this building. This project reminds us of our heritage and connects this beautiful natural area of Durango to downtown.”

With 85 percent of the $2 million Phase II budget secured, remaining funds to be raised will go toward exhibits. “A project of this magnitude and complexity can’t happen by one person alone,” Bradshaw said. “I stand here now only after amazing amounts of hard work from many other caring individuals.”

DDM board member and chair of the capital campaign, Bill Carver, echoed the sentiment that the groundbreaking marked a significant milestone for the project. “It’s been conceptual for so long, and there were some large-scale problems with the site as far as access and the remedial efforts needed.”

Extensive remediation efforts composed Phase I which began in 2000 and cost $1 million. Abandoned in 1972, the property was considered a “Brownfield site” due its prior use as a power-generation plant, which necessitated the removal of contaminants, soils and asbestos, according to Bradshaw. Stucco was also removed from the outside to showcase the building’s original bricks and mission-style architecture from when it was first built in 1893.

Fund-raising for the project has been nearly constant for the last decade, with concerted efforts for Phase II beginning about three years ago, according to Carver. “We got some major pieces of money in place just in the last six months,” he said. “We received our first half-million-dollar pledge last fall, from an out-of-state foundation, and the Front Range foundations are really getting behind the project.”

An old steam powered turbine and future museum exhibit sits at the ready inside the  Powerhouse. /Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Bradshaw estimated about a third of the donations for each phase came from Durango-area entities. “Many of these Front Range or out-of-state foundations look for projects outside of the Denver-metro area that have strong community support and an economic impact,” she said. “They want to see 30- to 35-percent of local support. We really have a healthy, diverse portfolio of donors.”

Local builders, lead by the general contractor for the Phase II remodel, Colarelli Construction, have pledged more than $350,000 worth of in-kind trades. “In this economic environment, that is absolutely remarkable,” said Carver. “Considering how much pressure they’re under with current-year conditions, for them to see the long-term benefits of this facility for the community, it’s remarkable.”

The Father’s Day weekend “Who’s Your Daddy” street festival has raised more than $200,000 in four years. The Gift-a-Brick campaign, for which individuals or businesses can purchase bricks to be used in the remodel and the plaza, has raised $67,000 thus far. Several local energy companies have also contributed toward exhibits and the Phase II build-out. An annual fall gala and the monthly “Power Hour” happy hours are other events that have helped raise money and awareness of the museum’s mission: “To ignite curiosity, spark imagination and power exploration.”

The Discovery Museum has already been reaching out to local schools with its “Solar Roller,” a mobile science and energy lab. “We’ve had high school kids involved and running the summer camps,” said DDM Board President Dave Nulton. “We’re going to do more public speaking and teacher training.”

All exhibits will be interactive in some form or another, according to Nulton.

“Kids really get interested if they can be part of an experiment,” he said. “One exhibit, for example, will allow kids to be the operator in a power frame and choose wind, solar or coal technology. It will teach them how to compare data and draw conclusions.”

The property will also act as one of the “bookends” of downtown Durango, with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad station as the other, and will hopefully be a catalyst in reviving riverfront activity, said Carver.

“One of the most exiting pieces of this is we’re building Durango’s town square: we’re going to have a huge plaza that will be a gathering place right on the river,” he said. “With the recreation center, library, and now this, we’re building these nodes of activity along the river trail, which is what it takes to get the riverfront connected.”

With the expanded space at the Powerhouse, the increased economic impact to the community is one of the project’s most exciting aspects, according to Carver. At its current 1,000-square-foot location above the Durango Arts Center, the museum serves 14,000 people annually. “With 5,000 square feet of exhibit space here, we expect to serve 40,000 to 50,000 in our first year,” Carver said. “We expect to create about $3 million of economic impact at full build-out of the facility.” •