The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota has been delighting children and families in our region for 16 years. With CEO Louise “Lou” Dickmeyer at the helm, it is about to embark on its next big adventure, an expansion that will triple the museum’s footprint.
“It’s super exciting,” Dickmeyer said. “It’ll be a one-of-a-kind experience for Minnesota because there is no other children’s museum that combines a major outdoor nature-based play space with this amazing indoor gallery. We’ll have this incredible regional asset as a resource for children and families.”
CMSM announced the expansion in April. It has purchased a half-acre lot adjacent to its existing building and grounds, funded by grants from the Dotson Family Fund of the Mankato Area Foundation and Kay Jacobson.
The newly acquired property will expand the museum to the east. In addition, Dickmeyer is working with the city to lease additional land north of the museum. The total expansion will stretch its perimeter to the intersection of Sibley Parkway and Riverfront Drive.
“We have big plans for all of that area,” Dickmeyer said. “We just formally announced the purchase of the land out there. We are making a formal request to the city to use the rest of the land on the north side of the museum. We own the building, but this is city-owned land. So we have a ground lease with the city.”
Dickmeyer estimates the project will require three to five years to complete. Once finished, it will allow CMSM to create a four-season outdoor play area, add new exhibits and learning spaces, and add or expand facilities for storage and fabricating.
Plans are fluid as CMSM seeks input from the community and prepares for preliminary soil remediation work. So it seemed like a perfect time to sit down with Dickmeyer and learn about her vision for the next five years.
Could you give me a brief recap of your career and how it led you here?
My passion for nonprofit business management brought me here.
I started my career with a part-time position that paid 75 bucks a week, running the Multiple Listing Service for real estate. This was back long before the internet. We formed the Mankato Area Board of REALTORS®, which is a nonprofit. It’s a 501(c)(6), a civic organization. I worked for a board and worked with a lot of committees, and I started getting my roots in nonprofit management. After that, I moved from one nonprofit role to another.
Ironically, I got my master’s degree in nonprofit management in 2002, and the next year I wound up moving out of the nonprofit sector and starting my own consulting business. I went to work for Taylor Corporation and then a technology startup. So I got my master’s degree in nonprofit management and flipped over to the for-profit world. I was at the university before coming to this position.
I started at the Children’s Museum in 2019. They were looking for a leader; they’d had a leadership void for quite a while. I knew this organization because I came here with my grandchildren. I put my name into what was a very competitive pool — I found out after the fact there were over 80 applicants nationwide. I knew it was the right time and the right organization, a great fit for me because I have such a deep network and a lot of experience. I just wound up in the right place at the right time.
I was really grateful for the opportunity. I relish the opportunity to take this organization to the next level to make sure it’s financially sustainable and will live on for decades to come.
What is it about the nonprofit world that draws you?
Two things come immediately to mind. One is mission. Serving a good mission is important. I’ve always wanted to make a difference. I know it sounds clichéd, but I’ve talked about this for many, many years.
There are a lot of for-profit companies that have amazing missions and do amazing work. But I’ve served some phenomenal missions, and this one (CMSM) is absolutely one of the best: igniting the natural curiosity of every child through the power of play in a dynamic, awe-inspiring environment.
The second thing is that nonprofit work is interesting because I get to play so many roles. I’m sort of a right brain, left brain person. I struggled to figure out what on earth I wanted to major in at the university. I had more declared majors than normal people should, and they were all over the place, from medical technology to interior design to business. I wound up with an English degree, but I have many interests.
In a nonprofit, one minute you’re working on a budget, the next minute you’re working on a marketing plan and the next minute you’re doing some government affairs work or working with your staff or planning programming. It’s very eclectic. There’s so much diversity in the different kinds of hats you have to wear, the roles you play and the areas of discipline that you have to address on a daily basis. This is particularly true as the chief executive, which is the role that I like the best. I like to run the show.
I have been in roles in for-profit organizations that were solely focused on sales, or relationship management, or marketing. I like each of those things, but I get so bored when that’s the only thing I’m doing all day, every day. I don’t get bored in this role, that’s for sure.
Can you elaborate on the business of nonprofit work?
I have a real passion for nonprofit business, and I say that because nonprofits are businesses. A lot of people don’t think about it like that. They think if you’re a nonprofit, you’re not a business. That’s not true.
A nonprofit can generate as much net income as a for-profit can. You just can’t return any of that to shareholders, which in this case, is your board of directors. In a for-profit business, it’s shared with shareholders if you’re publicly traded, or it goes back to the owners and the principals if you’re privately held, however that’s set up. So nonprofits can generate a lot of profit.
The thing about nonprofits is they’re usually not overly staffed, so you have to wear a lot of hats, which is good. We don’t silo people’s roles. For example, we have an associate director of memberships and IT.
On the one hand, that’s a sales role and customer service heavy, but on the other hand, they’re managing all of our information technology. That’s one job. There’s a lot of meshing of roles from different disciplines.
Speaking of staff, how many people does the museum employ?
We have 22. We had 40 before COVID hit. There was a lot more programming staff. COVID caused a lot of changes, but not all for the worse. It was an opportunity to stand back, look at everything, and make some changes in systems and operations and staffing. We just weren’t able to do everything we were doing before.
Do you think you will return to your previous staffing level?
I don’t think so. I’m starting to work on some projections on our expansion and how that will have to be staffed and what it will cost us. I think I’ve only added eight staff in, and I’m not really holding back at this stage of the game. We have to have a pretty realistic view of what it will take to operate when we become a full-blown 3-acre campus with a number of new aspects to our operation. But I don’t think we will go back up to that many.
What’s the role of volunteers in your organization?
Volunteers still play a very important role in the organization, but we don’t have as many ad hoc volunteers. We have a volunteer sewing group, this amazing group of women who meet every other Monday here. If you notice the fruits and vegetables in the Grow It Gallery, those were all made by our sewing team. Those are proprietary products. They do all kinds of amazing things, like our curtains on the Lauri Kuch Memorial Stage. Whatever we need, they come up with it. So that’s an example of ongoing, active volunteers.
We have a couple of amazing volunteers who tend to our prairie garden. They do so much work. It would cost us a lot to hire someone to do the great work they do. And they did that while we were closed. So we’ve got some people who cycle back through each year.
We used to have more volunteer floor staff, but we pulled all of that when we reopened after we were closed for eight months. So we’ve been slowly moving back towards opening up more volunteer opportunities.
Your exhibits encompass creative play, educational development and regional industry. That’s an interesting combination.
It is. We get a lot of direction from community partners as we’re developing new exhibits. The “Dig It!” exhibit is a great example of that. There is a list of regional construction firms that participated in this project. They have such a significant stake in our region’s economy and their future is important to our future. We were able to tap them for ideas and exhibit direction. Now we’re supporting them by making this available to children and families and shedding light on their industry.
Museum visitor Soren mastering the popular Dig It excavator exhibit, scooping pea rock with a real mini excavator.
How long does it take to create an exhibit like “Dig It!”?
There’s a lot of design and development. A brand new exhibit takes about a year to create. We work with exhibit designers who know what they’re doing to develop the idea and then iterate around different concepts. Then we scope it to the space, source all the materials and build it. The “Dig It!” exhibit was built from scratch, including the crane, which was welded together by our staff members.
This (exhibit) is in a rotating space. It will be on the floor for about a year. Most of the time, we rotate exhibits out for six months.
What age is your target audience?
Birth to 9 years old. We have an indoor fenced-in infant and toddler play porch geared for kids up to age 3. It gives them a little better space to roam freely and not get knocked over by older kids. Parents can interact with them very effectively in that space.
“Dig It!” has drawn children older than 9 in here with their families to try it out. So that exhibit stretched the age range a little bit. But when the Learning Experience Master Plan was written back in 2012, it was intended for birth to 9.
How has the museum evolved over the years?
The CMSM was incorporated in 2006. It was founded over a lunch table by some passionate moms and early childhood educators who wanted a really safe place and a wonderful experience for their children to grow and learn. So they started by driving out to parks or parades or different community events to allow people to play and spread the word about trying to create this children’s museum.
The museum was located in a number of interim spots. Then this building, which used to be the city’s mass transit building, was identified in 2013 or 2014. The renovation took place, and it opened in May of 2015. We just passed our seventh birthday in this space.
Since we’ve been here, things got finished off and exhibits continued to be enhanced. The outdoor area has been expanded. We added our mud kitchen, awnings, the Archimedes screw water feature, a STEM play experience and the Butterfly House.
We know our members. When we survey them, they tell us regularly that they like to have different things to do and see when they’re here. So we continue to evolve.
Is the desire for new activities and exhibits due to repeat visitors?
I think so. When we opened, they projected around 40,000 to 44,000 people a year would come and visit. They did a study that looked at other communities with similar-sized populations nationwide. So their estimate was around 40,000 to 44,000.
The reality is much higher. We have 100,000 people come through here each year, from every state in the nation and every county in Minnesota, quite regularly. In 2019, the last full year of operation, we had residents from 75 of the 87 Minnesota counties. We’ve also had visitors from eight different countries. So it’s a huge draw.
Some members are regulars. We have members in Chaska who drive down every Friday. They tell us that they’d rather come here than drive into downtown St. Paul and go to Minnesota Children’s Museum.
That is an amazing place, but there’s that kind of mindset.
A resident from Glencoe recently told us that she shops in Mankato regularly because there’s a children’s museum. She’s able to combine that shopping experience with something for her children. Another example is day care; we have several child care providers who bring their big groups in every week, sometimes several times a week.
Our membership base is strong, and people like to be here. We have a huge followership. It’s a unique space with an open concept gallery and unique exhibits that you’re not going to see anywhere else. We had such a cold, rainy spring that we hit record numbers for revenue and number of admissions in March.
The museum’s first young visitors must be in high school by now. What do you hear from local educators and parents? Are they seeing a positive impact on area children?
You’d have to do a longitudinal study to get to the bottom of that, and we haven’t done that. However, we do get evidence in our membership surveys. It’s more anecdotal, but it’s fairly consistent from respondent to respondent and year to year, so it’s fairly reliable. They talk about the difference that they have witnessed with their child being able to come here to interact and play. They’re gaining skills and advancing socially.
We serve a lot of families who face barriers such as language, cultural and financial barriers. A third of our members are Gateway To Play Members who are able to get a membership at no cost. We’re very proud of that access program. Many of those families tell us that this is the only safe place they can bring their children to play. It helps to open those children up again, emotionally, socially and intellectually. It has had a big impact.
It even has an impact from a tourism standpoint. There’s a report that says when families travel, they choose to come to communities that have children’s museums if given a choice. They spend $38 per person when traveling in town, beyond what they pay for museum admission. So we’ve had some real economic impact besides our payroll. It is a regional asset that is very unique and highly regarded.
CMSM has excellent relationships with community businesses. How do you foster that?
We have some businesses that reach out and want to partner on an exhibit that may or may not come to fruition. But we typically tie our outreach to companies around either an exhibit or program focused on (agriculture) or STEM or that ties back to one of our themes.
We’ve built a lot of relationships with businesses that have benefited us significantly. You can see the many businesses listed in our original $5 million capital campaign that put money on the table and successfully got this off the ground. Since then, whenever we develop a new exhibit or expand a program, an educational initiative or an exhibit, we reach out to area businesses. They support the museum through a direct cash contribution, in-kind contribution, or potentially a grant through corporate or individual foundations. We’ve enjoyed tremendous support.
We recently received a significant grant from the Glen A. Taylor Foundation to build a brand new modern ag exhibit.
Dickmeyer and team members Cathy and Cami reset the Grow It gallery exhibit between visiting groups.
Do you have an annual campaign or fundraising event?
We do an annual appeal. We actually have two rounds, one midyear and then again at the end of the year. We have great support from our donors.
Last year we launched the Ignite Society, which takes its name from our mission to ignite the natural curiosity of every child. Before that time, we didn’t have a formal major gifts stewardship effort. We’re up to 130 people in the Ignite Society, and we’ll be expanding it. We hosted a lovely event here last July.
Our development work has been evolving over the last couple of years, and I think we’ve made some great strides. We’ve been working with a consultant to help flesh out our development. We know that we need to deepen that bench.
Is fundraising one of your roles?
It is my role. A CEO is always involved in generating revenue, working with donors and envisioning the future. So I will always have a role there. But we hope to hire a chief development officer here relatively soon.
What achievements are you most proud of?
Surviving COVID. I was only on board for six months when it started, and I had to furlough the whole staff. During COVID, six children’s museums closed permanently. We not only survived it, we’re thriving. I’m proud of that.
I’m proud of the fact that we were able to work with the property owner and with our amazing donors and accomplish that land purchase. It had been attempted numerable times before I got here, and they were unsuccessful. The approach we took this time was successful, and I’m very proud of that.
I am also proud of the vision that we have going forward and this expansion and what it will mean for the region.
What can you tell me about the planned expansion?
It’s a very exciting time. We’re very early in this process, but it’s going to be something else. It will open up the whole campus and create a 3-acre expanse. Currently, the museum occupies a little over an acre.
There will be a new office and community room space connected with this building. We’ll convert our existing office space into an area for children with neuro sensitivities with muted sound and light to make it a great experience for these children. There isn’t anything like that in the region. Our storage is currently off site, so we’ll bring that on site. We’ll also have a new early learning nature-based program and experience for children.
All of this is focused on getting kids outside to play. There’s so much research around the need for children to be outside in the elements all year round. Getting out in the fresh air and moving is so vitally important. There is growing childhood obesity and ADHD and incidents of depression. Research shows all of those things decline significantly with outdoor play: attention span increases, rates of childhood obesity decline and rates of ADHD decline. It benefits children’s ability to learn. It is so compelling.
So our goal is to give them an outdoor play experience here, a safe place they can play outside. We’re going to have a robust outdoor activity area with large climbing structures, an amazing water feature and beautifully landscaped paths that families can wander through.
Each of these are million-plus-dollar components, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re estimating the whole project now. The board and our donors have embraced this vision, and we will continue to move forward on it.
What’s the timetable?
We see this as a three- to five-year initiative. We’re already working with the city on some aspects of this. We know that we will need to do soil remediation, and we’ve already started the testing.
We’ll apply for a grant in the spring of next year; then the soil remediation work will begin in the summer or fall of 2023. So we probably won’t be able to begin construction for up to two years, but that’s OK.
One important thing that we haven’t really begun to do is engage our community and regional partners. What is it that they believe children need? And what do we need to build this out? We hope to bring back the same museum planners we engaged early on to create that 80-page learning experience master plan. We’re working with them now on a new contract, and they will help us mesh all of the wonderful experiences that exist here.
Of course, we are in Minnesota. Will it be open for all four seasons?
It’ll be year-round. There are great examples of this in Brooklyn, New York, and Brookings, South Dakota. They have an outdoor space with a large water feature that is only open during the warm months. They shut that off, but they leave their outdoor space open all year. Madison, Wisconsin, just added an outdoor play space, and it’s open all year.
Children need to be outside all year round. You can dress them warmly. We’re going to try to have warming houses and a little restroom facility. If you get out there and you’ve got a 2- or 3-year-old who needs to use the restroom, you’ll need to move fast!
That’s part of what we’ll begin to design and create, but it’ll really open this place up. We know that people drive by here and have no idea that this museum is here. It’s kind of hidden. That will not be the case any longer. So we will have many more families, tourists and members coming through here. That is going to have a huge impact.
You’ve emphasized CMSM being a safe place for children to play. How do you accomplish that?
We call it fenced-in freedom. The whole outside play area will be fenced, just as it is now. Safety is part of my modeling projections. We’ll have to staff up to have enough people to support children and families in their experience out in these areas. That’s part of our design, too. We want to create a place that is safe but not sterile. We want to have things that kids will climb on and fall off safely. They’ll get wet, and they’ll get dirty, and they’ll get muddy. You’ve got to let kids live. You’ve got to let them play.
We have a policy here that an adult cannot enter this space unless accompanied by a child. You don’t know who the adults are wandering in. So they have to be here for a legitimate reason. That is one of the ways we keep it safe. Our staff is also very well trained.
The museum promotes independent, unstructured play. Why is that important?
Research shows that children spend four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, but they spend up to seven hours a day in front of screens or other media. They also spend a lot of time in structured activities. Kids need to be kids and play freely. There’s too much structured time. There’s a lot of “Don’t do that.”
I’ve been watching this little guy climbing around a log as I talk with you, and I think, “Good for you, mom! You’re letting him bump around, and if he falls off, it’s no big deal.” It’s so important. Kids just need to be kids. You see the joy on their faces when playing. They’re learning, and they’re growing, and they’re developing in such a positive way.
It’s so much more impactful than people realize. I knew it anecdotally because I came here with my grandchildren. They would beg me to bring them here. I knew how much they loved it. Then once I got here as CEO, I learned the depth of the educational experience that exists in everything we do here. It’s so impactful.
This is the story of all children’s museums, and the voice of children’s museums is getting louder and louder. It is amplified even more after COVID. Children need time to just release and play and learn and enjoy. Parents need to recognize that. We serve so many wonderful families. The challenges that families face are pretty amazing, but the power of play is alive and well here.
Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota
224 Lamm St.
Mankato, MN 56001
Phone: (507) 386-0279
Photography by Jonathan Smith