Facing recent criticism and uncertainty over its future, museum leaders hope the new Main Street Children's Museum will be a hit and serve as evidence that the Culture and Heritage Museums - and their leadership - deliver on their promises.
Museum leaders hope the new York County Council will keep that in mind next year when it considers a plan to bring museum employees under direct county control and disband the commission that governs the museums.
The plan calls for more oversight of the museums, which are funded in majority by the county. It is seen as a way to better manage all the county's resources, including its tourism and environmental conservation arms, county leaders have said.
Museum leaders and supporters are united against the plan, arguing it could threaten the quality and sustainability of the museums. They are asking county leaders what's wrong with the way things are run now.
The children's museum is a "benchmark" accomplishment, said executive director Van Shields. "But it's also an indication of what we do every day."
The new venue also opens while museum leaders have been fielding criticism from county leaders and within the museum.
Concerns were raised after museum leaders faced allegations of fostering a poor work environment from ex-employees and volunteers. An employee survey revealed employees' satisfaction beat national benchmarks, while pay, communication and focus needed improvement.
A failed plan to develop land donated to the museum foundation for a new museum along the Catawba River has also been considered a negative for museum leaders. The Culture and Heritage Foundation, which raises money for the museums, owes $3.78 million to a development partner who left the deal when the economy soured, museum leaders say.
Museum leaders have learned from their mistakes and from building the children's venue, Shields said. Whenever the "political will" to build a new museum returns, he said, they'll be "ready to go."
For now, museum leaders are hoping their new venue will attract new visitors to downtown Rock Hill and to the museums.
Finding a new audience
After playing for the first time Thursday at the new Main Street Children's Museum, Isabela Haas and her sons Jimmy, 2, and Jake, 1, ate lunch at McHale's on Main across Main Street and were on their way home when Jimmy begged to return to the museum.
Haas gave in.
"I can't sit at home," said the full-time mom. "They get so bored. If I don't leave the house by 9 o'clock, it's a meltdown."
For that reason, Haas has memberships to the zoo, Discovery Place in Charlotte, and any other kid-friendly venues she can find. She spends her days carting her kids into Charlotte, Pineville and anywhere else she can find parks, playgrounds and mall play areas.
Now she has a membership to the Culture and Heritage Museums because of the children's museum, she said.
"I've been waiting for it to open," she said.
The only drawback to the membership is the limited number of free passes to the children's museum, she said. She's never been to Historic Brattonsville, or the McCelvey Center, or the Museum of York County, but now that she's a member, she might go.
Haas' friend, Kasia Sharma of Charlotte, who met Haas for the play date, likely wouldn't return unless her friends decided to go again. It's a 40-minute drive and she lives close to Discovery Place, which has many more offerings.
"There's not enough double things" in the new children's museum, Sharma said. She worries that if there are too many children playing, there won't be enough toy props to go around.
"The boat station didn't really have much either," she said, adding that she hopes the museum will add more attractions.
Nevertheless, her daughter Maya, 2, had "a ball" playing dress-up and playing in the kitchen, she said.
"She kept herself very busy."
Alison Gray, who works in the museum's gift and toy shop, said Haas and her friends reflect the majority of the traffic who've come to the museum in its first week of operation.
Haas is the kind of visitor museum leaders are hoping to attract - first-time members coming to downtown for the museum and patronizing other businesses. Preschoolers and their families are an audience the museum hasn't consistently served, Shields said.
Presence on Main Street
Shields said he couldn't predict the economic impact the museum will have, but he hopes it will bring a "steady drip" of traffic to Main Street.
National museum leaders have said that children's museums located in areas in need of economic recovery are anchors that bring new vitality.
Thirty-five percent of new children's museums are a part of economic revitalization projects, said Janet Elman, executive director of the Association of Children's Museums, located outside of Washington, D.C.
Having communities invest in projects serving children is important, too, she said.
The Main Street Children's Museum was paid for with tax dollars from Rock Hill and York County, and private donations.
It will likely be "revenue neutral," Shields said - paying for itself, but not generating huge returns.
Since opening Dec. 3, the museum has sold 16 memberships, nine during the four-day ChristmasVille festival and seven during the week since.
In the days following the ChristmasVille crowd, the children's museum's toy store generated more than $300 in sales, and on Thursday, 64 visitors came through, the highest headcount of the week, said Jeannie Marion, deputy director of marketing and visitor services.
The buzz along Main Street ranged from slight to great.
Dawn Kirby, owner of Kuttin' Up, a hair salon that's been on Main Street for five years, said she wasn't sure exactly where the children's museum is, but that her clients had mentioned it. Depending less on Main Street foot traffic than word-of-mouth for business, her hair dressers stay booked, she said. "We're in our own little world down here," Kirby said.
Farther down Main Street at Citizen Corners, owner Hall Dozier said it would be nice if the museum generated more foot traffic in the daytime. The restaurant's crowd always come at dinner, said Dozier, who's wife already has plans to take their child to the museum.
"The more draw for downtown the better," he said.
Old Town Bistro owner Stacy Giannatos already is seeing a positive impact. More families than usual came with her business lunch crowd, she said, and she's been hearing good things from customers about the museum.
At the York County Arts Council, a couple of doors down from the museum, executive director Debra Heintz hopes the children's museum and art center can work together to create new offerings for children.
Want to go?
The Main Street Children's Museum features exhibits inspired by the late Rock Hill artist Vernon Grant's whimsical artwork.
Where: 133 E. Main St., downtown Rock Hill
When: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
How much: Admission is $5 for ages 1 and older and $3 for Culture and Heritage Museum members; $3 per person for pre-booked groups of 15 or more.
Information: 803-327-6400 or chmuseums.org