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Rock Hill's children's museum to cost $1.2M

The price tag for a children's museum planned in downtown Rock Hill has climbed to $1.2 million, with organizers saying they need the extra money to take the venue from "really good to great."

Scheduled to open in December, the museum will transform a vacant bank lobby in the heart of Main Street into an interactive playland featuring a giant treehouse, sailing ship, castle and miniature house.

Supporters pitch the museum -- inspired by the drawings of late local artist Vernon Grant -- as a place of educational discovery for infants to 6-year-olds.

The first discovery is that the museum will incur some extra costs. A year after convincing Rock Hill and York County to commit $900,000 in public money, organizers say they'll pursue an additional $300,000 in private donations.

"When you start off on a project like this, you basically estimate it on square footage," said museum director Van Shields. "We always knew we were going to have to supplement that ($900,000) with private support."

A York County Council member who voted against the project said he's not surprised by the new figures.

"You've got champagne tastes on a beer budget, to put it honestly," said Joe Cox of Sharon. "I said no the whole time. I'm in construction. I knew you couldn't do it at that budget."

Elected officials said they are unwilling to commit more public money but don't mind the museum pursuing private donations.

"I'm glad to hear if they're going over budget, they've got other plans" to cover costs, said Councilman Chad Williams of Rock Hill.

"If they can raise the money on their own, then kudos to them," said Councilman Paul Lindemann of Fort Mill.

Williams & Fudge co-owner Gary Williams is part of a group of donors who will contribute to the effort. Williams, a member of the museum's foundation, declined to name his gift last week but voiced confidence the goal will be reached.

The latest budget, dated April 27, lists $180,000 in "private funding requests." It says the museum's foundation must identify another $120,000.

"The basic museum can be delivered with what was told," Williams said. "They came up with some bells and whistles that will add a lot of excitement. That's where the additional funds will be needed."

The estimate emerged after Shields and museum officials got into detailed discussions with an architect and design firm.

Two weeks ago, museum commissioners voted to use $75,000 in board reserve funds to move ahead with design so the project can be put out for public bids this summer. A contractor will retrofit the bank space, and another will build and install the exhibits.

County Councilman Curwood Chappell said he was troubled by the latest figures. Chappell voted in favor of the children's museum but called its leadership group "out of order" in a message last week.

"It's gotten like the government -- as long as they can get money, they'll spend it," Chappell said.

The museum commission has faced questions about its handling of other projects, including longer-than-expected renovations to a historic villa called Hightower Hall and stalled progress on a proposed new county museum that initially was pegged at $65 million.

Treehouse, sailing ship

New sketch plans for the children's museum show four play zones with colorful landscapes and an array of gizmos and gadgets.

Visitors entering from Main Street will be greeted by a treehouse that stretches from the floor to the 18-foot ceiling. Kids can climb through roots and look down from openings in the tree trunk.

A miniature home will have kid-friendly activities in a kitchen, sitting area and digging garden.

On a sailing ship, kids can hoist a sail, peer through a scope, climb a net and turn a steering wheel.

A "toy fair" castle on the back wall will use the old bank vault as a dressing room where kids can put on Grant-themed costumes.

Shields said special features can be added after the museum opens. An example: Touch-sensitive lily pads that make croaking noises as children step on them.

"We don't need to do everything at once," Shields said. "As a matter of fact, there's wisdom to not doing everything at once. Then you have an opportunity to add something later."

Grant's gnome-like characters will not be part of the attractions. Research showed children responded poorly, museum officials said. Other props have been added: A stock of 3,000 bean bags with uses in each play zone, and oversized keys that unlock doors and cupboards.

Tickets are expected to cost $4 to $5 with group rates for pre-school classes and special programs.

The museum will be operated by the Culture & Heritage Commission, which manages arts and educational venues around York County.

Organizers are on a tight schedule to open by Dec. 2 in time for opening night of Rock Hill's annual ChristmasVille festival. Shields said last week it's one target that will not change.