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Mississippi Children's Museum finally gets underway

After years of planning and organizing, efforts that were slowed by lengthy negotiations and Mother Nature, construction on the Mississippi Children’s Museum (MCM) is finally underway.

“It is with great excitement that we begin construction on the Mississippi Children’s Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2010,” said Susan Garrard, executive director of MCM. “None of this would have been possible without all of our donors and volunteers. They are making this dream a reality as we embark on building one of the premier children’s museums in the United States.”

The MCM, which broke ground in July and is to be located adjacent to the Museum of Natural Science at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park, will be a 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility offering 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. That space will be arranged around five themes — Mississippi heritage, health and nutrition, literacy, cultural arts and science and technology. The museum will offer both permanent and traveling exhibits, as well as activities.

The architect on the project is Canizaro Cawthon Davis Architects of Jackson, while Jackson-based Fountain Construction was selected as the general contractor on the project in early November.

Fountain, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2009, has a long history of working on projects unique to the state, including: Mississippi’s New Capitol in the 1970s, Capital City Convention Center, Jackson Medical Mall and Clarion Ledger building, all in Jackson; Bologna Performing Arts Center at Delta State University; and, Swayze Field at the University of Mississippi.

“As a Mississippi company, Fountain Construction is proud to be a part of history as we begin building this museum,” said Brad Fountain, president of Fountain Construction whose father, the late Sonny Fountain, was an icon in the Mississippi construction industry. “We are excited to be involved with a project that will have such an important impact on young people throughout our state.”

At peak construction, more than 200 people will be working to build the museum.

Getting the MCM out of the ground proved a challenge — the roots of the project go back more than a decade. In 1996, the Junior League of Jackson (JLJ) took on the development of the museum from a group of individuals. By that time, the Mississippi Legislature had passed a $2-million bond bill. The JLJ subsequently pledged another $1 million to the project. (JLJ would later up that commitment to $2 million, has spearheaded development efforts and has committed volunteers to the work.)

In 2003, the Mississippi Legislature authorized the selection of a site for the proposed MCM, allowing organizers to choose from four sites around Jackson. The site at LeFleur’s Bluff was eventually selected, but here the project got off schedule as negotiations with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks over the site took longer than expected.

Fundraising began in earnest in the summer of 2005, just in time for Hurricane Katrina to roll through that August and derail the schedule again. Fundraising would not resume until early 2006.

All of these obstacles have caused a surprisingly short delay in construction plans, though. Last year, the ground-breaking target date was April 2008, and the completion date was slated for this December, so the project is only a few months off track.

Fundraising has stayed pretty much on schedule, however. Since fundraising resumed in 2006, the outpouring of support from the public and private entities has been impressive. Grants rolled in from such groups as the telecommunications company Verizon and the Mississippi Arts Commission. Jim and Donna Barksdale, the Bower Foundation and the Lucky Day Foundation gave $2 million.

Just a short list of corporate members includes Viking Range in Greenwood, BancorpSouth in Tupelo, Cellular South of Ridgeland and Sanderson Farms in Laurel. Hundreds are counted as individual members.

There is still some fundraising left to do. Organizers have raised 87 percent of their $24.5-million goal, an accomplishment considering the troubled economy.

The MCM leaders point out that the museum will be important for more than just children and will benefit the entire state, not just Jackson. Bill Bynum, serving on the MCM board of directors, said the project would not only provide Mississippi youth with a valuable learning resource, but it will also be a major attraction for visitors from other states.

Garrard asked for continued financial support for the museum.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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