Port Exploreum to close

Historical Society says deficits are forcing it to sell or lease building but decision to shutter museum financed by $2.1 million in donations called ‘deeply disappointing’

THE PORT EXPLOREUM at 118 N. Franklin St. in downtown Port Washington, which opened as a state-of-the-art, interactive maritime museum to much fanfare in 2015, was created in the renovated Businessman’s Club building. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Exploreum, which opened its doors to much fanfare in 2015, will close after this summer, the Port Washington Historical Society announced this week.

After seven years, the interactive museum failed to reach its potential and generate enough income to come close to covering its expenses, so the Society is looking at selling or leasing the building at 118 N. Franklin St.,  the group’s officers said.

“The numbers are rather stark,” Vice President Bob Henkle said. “We can’t keep doing this.

“When I came on the board, all the excitement was in the Exploreum. But it’s hard to look at the numbers and not say this doesn’t work, the king has no clothes.”

“It’s sad. There’s been so much toil and sweat that went into this,” Past President Jim Pauly said.

Officials said the Exploreum’s annual budget shortfall has ranged from $38,535 last year to $129,010 in 2018, while revenues peaked at $21,804 in its first year.

“I don’t think it was ever envisioned as being self-sustaining but I don’t think they anticipated it would be a drain,” Pauly said.

The Exploreum, which was hailed as a state-of-the art museum that made use of technology to offer hands-on experiences that weren’t found elsewhere, was funded by donations from the community.

The officials said they have met with a number of the major donors to explain the situation, and Pauly said, “They understand when they understand our financial situation.”

Bill Moren, who led the effort to create the Exploreum as chairman of the museum advisory board, said the decision is “deeply disappointing.”

“We had 276 donors who gave $2,056,000, and they made these gifts to keep the stories of our community alive and to educate our children,” Moren said, noting the donations ranged from $10 and $20 to $1 million. “We didn’t say if things get tough we’re going to close things down.

“There are people who considered the Exploreum a burden. I thought it was a blessing. And I think there was a lot ahead of it.”

That included a potential partnership with the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which was approved last year, and educational programs now that the pandemic is becoming endemic.

The Exploreum was an important part of the nomination package compiled when the sanctuary was proposed, and officials hoped it would play a big part in its mission, Kathy Tank, executive director of the Port Tourism Council, said, adding the Exploreum was envisioned to be a hub for the sanctuary in Port. 

But the sanctuary is just getting on its feet and likely won’t be seeking space in Port for three to five years, Pauly said.

“We can’t wait that long,” he said.

The Exploreum was a “great addition to our downtown,” Tank added. “I felt it was an important piece of the tourism package that Port has to offer visitors.”

Shirli Flack, who was a major donor to the Exploreum, said the building “offered a lot to the people of Port,” particularly youngsters. 

“It’s important that they learn about their history, and the Exploreum helped bring that to life,” Flack said. “I was thrilled to be part of it. To me, this is sad.”

Steve Schowalter, CEO of Port Washington State Bank, another major donor, said he hopes the Society will find someone to lease the building “so sometime in the future the Society could resume operations there. There is nothing second class about that facility.”

The Exploreum has been closed since the summer of 2019 due to the pandemic, but Society officials note that didn’t cause the issues they are facing. However, it did force them to take a closer look at finances. It was a year-long process during which they realized that supporting three facilities — the Exploreum, Resource Center and Light Station — is too much.

“The Society wants to be good stewards of what it has,” Henkle said.

The Exploreum, officials said, is an expensive operation. It requires paid personnel as well as costly technology that needs to be upgraded and maintained, and the cost of staging exhibits — central to attracting people to the facility — is also high.

And, they said, there have been “calamities” such as flooding and a power surge that damaged equipment.

The museum didn’t generate the number of visitors the Society hoped for, President Nancy Holley said, and it wasn’t used as a rental space as often as expected.

“It’s a long narrow space that isn’t conducive to many things,” she said. 

To increase attendance at the Exploreum, she added, exhibits need to change, but that costs $20,000 to $30,000. The Exploreum generally changed exhibits once a year, Holley said, but even on the best of days few people came to the museum.

Holley said the Society did what it could to make the Exploreum a success, but now it’s time to explore other options. 

The Exploreum will operate over the summer with a World War II exhibit, speakers and events, she said, while the Society markets the building.

When it closes, the equipment will be moved out, possibly to the generator building at the Light Station, where it would be available for visitors there, Pauly said. The Society is working with the City of Port Washington, which owns the Light Station, to extend its lease for 25 years, he said.

The Society could also construct a new building on a lot it owns adjacent to the Light Station to accommodate not only the equipment and possibly some displays but also offices and an event space, the Society officials said.

“The more we talk about it, the idea of building a campus around the Light Station is very exciting, where you could do all the things you were doing at the Exploreum more efficiently,” Henkle said. 

There’s also a possibility the marine sanctuary could lease the Exploreum, in which case the interactive Lake Michigan table, which shows everything from wrecks in the lake to the boats traveling on the water, could remain there and be incorporated into that facility, Pauly said.

  No matter what happens, the Society officers said, the Exploreum was a success, not just in offering a premier facility for residents and visitors for the past seven years but also in saving a building that was earmarked to be torn down.

“It was the right thing to do,” Holley said. “It was within two weeks of being razed. It’s a beautiful building, and we saved it.”

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