RALEIGH, N.C. — Just over a year ago, Exploris museum in Raleigh was struggling under the weight of $5 million in debt it wasn’t able to service and watching attendance stagnate at around 75,000 visitors a year.
Today, having merged with another children’s museum and undergone a makeover, the new Marbles Kids Museum is virtually debt-free, operating at break-even and on track to welcome more than a quarter-million people through its doors in the first year since reopening.
Exploris and Playspace, a popular hands-on children’s museum that catered to the pre-school set, officially merged on June 30 of 2007, after which both organizations closed their doors for a few weeks to regroup and reopen together on Sept. 29, 2007, in Exploris’ downtown facilities.
More than 10,000 people attended the grand opening that day, says Sally Edwards, president and CEO of Marbles since May 2007.
“We did everything quickly last year because we had to,” she says. “While we’ve done so much in the last year, we’re just getting started. A year later we really have a story to tell.”
The change is a rebirth of sorts for Exploris. Plagued since its 1999 opening by anemic attendance and money woes, the museum was dependent on bank loans and infusions of cash from Wake County to stay afloat.
But the merger deal, penned the day after Exploris orchestrated the retirement of its $5 million in bank loans as required by Playspace, says Edwards, appears to have set Marbles rolling in the right direction.
A fresh start
On stable financial footing, and with the honeymoon year winding up, Edwards plans to focus on a few fundamentals — mission, fundraising and committing to constant change.
“We had to lead the way with the fun,” she says of the makeover and reopening. “Now we have to backfill with the purpose. We need to make the purpose more evident, but we’ll never back away from the fun.”
That new phase will kick off with a celebration Sept. 27 marking Marbles’ first birthday, complete with a giant birthday cupcake, stations where kids can make birthday cards and hats, and new activities.
That will be followed by an evening party for current and prospective donors at the home of the board chair, where “we’ll tell the story and celebrate,” says Edwards.
In September, Marbles kicked off an awareness campaign, which Edwards says will lay the foundation for a new approach to fundraising.
“We want the community to be aware of Marbles, specifically where we’re going and what our purpose is,” she says. “That’s necessary before the fundraising takes off.”
That will include better signage in the museum, as well as a new website that Edwards says will be more fun, playful and informative.
It also will include the unveiling of concept drawings for an overhaul of the exterior of the museum, designed pro-bono by Raleigh-based JDavis Architects, a move Edwards hopes will “get the wow factor on the outside as well as the inside.”
Then, in October and November, the museum will hold a series of luncheons for donor prospects identified by the board, where Edwards will “dive deeper” into the mission and the organization’s role in the community and “do some serious individual-donor prospecting.”
Over the past year, Marbles also has tweaked its corporate-sponsorship program by encouraging businesses to be involved in the design of the exhibits they sponsor, as opposed to simply writing the checks.
For example, Greg Fischel, meteorologist for WRAL-TV, worked with museum staff to design a new weather exhibit to open Sept. 17, sponsored by WRAL’s parent-company, Capitol Broadcasting, and based on the “Magic School Bus,” a popular science-education book and video series for kids.
“The model we’re adopting is to constantly grow and change our programs,” says Edwards. “We’ll look at project-based funding rather than capital campaigns.”
That commitment to growth and change in Marbles’ programming is paramount, she says, because children themselves grow and change.
That means new hands-on activities weekly, rotating special exhibits every few months and taking cues from the children.
“We can tell what’s not working for the kids,” she says. “We’re committed to changing anything that’s static and not working. We don’t want anything here that’s limping along.”
That philosophy meant extending the life of this summer’s exhibit on the Olympics, and putting in place half a hockey rink designed and funded by the Carolina Hurricanes Kids ‘N Community Foundation.
Next on tap: World Trek, an interactive exhibit in which kids become investigative journalists who travel the world sleuthing, collecting information and doing hands-on activities.
And in 2009, Marbles will welcome a new traveling exhibit: The World Adventures of Mr. Potato Head.
“Our goal is that our donors’ return on investment will grow significantly every year, measured by the number of kids and the value of the visit,” says Edwards.
Turning around a troubled past
The current financial and attendance standing of Marbles is an abrupt turnaround from Exploris’ performance before the merger.
The museum ended fiscal 2007 with an operating loss of about $475,000 on its $4.2 million budget, and was carrying almost $6 million in loans, according to its IRS filings.
In its final year of operation, the museum paid none of the more than $280,000 in interest due on its $5 million in bank loans.
The remaining loans, just over $355,000 from Gordon Smith III, Exploris’ founder and former board chair, and $495,000 from an anonymous charitable trust, require no interest payments and have no due dates.
Revenue the museum earned from activities like ticket sales, merchandise and food sales and facility rentals, totaled about $2.3 million in fiscal 2007.
And Exploris received about $187,000 in cash contributions and $1 million from Wake County.
Today, Marbles is operating at “break-even,” says Edwards.
The bank debt was forgiven last summer in exchange for a naming-rights package for lenders Wachovia, BB&T and RBC Centura.
Marbles now sports the Wachovia IMAX Theater, the RBC Bank Think Tank activity space and the BB&T Family Clubhouse activity room, and the three banks can each host an annual employee appreciation day at the museum and have free use of the museum’s rental facilities.
“Marbles would not exist without those partners,” says Edwards of the banks. “Otherwise we might have had to give the building to the county.”
And she is hoping the loans from Smith and the anonymous trust eventually will turn into donations, she says.
By the end of fiscal 2008, Marbles’ budget stood at $4.9 million, says Edwards, covered by $1 million from Wake County, $3.2 million in earned revenue and $680,000 in cash and in-kind donations, and helped along by its rent-free accommodations from the county, valued at $750,000 a year.
Edwards’ goal is to have the county’s annual cash support stay at $1 million indefinitely, gradually shrinking as a percentage of the budget as the budget grows. That’s justified, she says.
“Before, we were an underperforming asset for the county,” says Edwards. “Now we’re a performing asset.”
The dramatic increase in visitors fueled revenue last year, too. In the year before the merger, about 150,000 people walked through the doors of Exploris and Playspace combined.
Since the reopening last September, Marbles has welcomed about 250,000 visitors, not including the 10,000 who showed up opening day, blowing past Edwards’ “stretch” goal of 175,000.
And the museum now has about 2,500 members, well above the 800 Exploris and Playspace each had in the year before they merged.
“Now we’re operating under the right model,” says Edwards. “And the better we operate, the better we’ll be with our earned-revenue stream.”