Discovery World would develop a major addition and convert one of its theaters into new exhibit space as part of an $18 million improvement project at the museum on downtown Milwaukee's lakefront.
That work is to begin in August, with the addition opening in early summer 2018, said Joel Brennan, Discovery World president and chief executive officer. It would be another in a series of nearby projects that are reshaping the downtown lakefront.
The redeveloped science and technology museum would have 21,000 square feet of new exhibit and event space, including the 10,000-square-foot addition. By comparison, the Milwaukee Art Museum addition that opened in November 2015 has 17,500 square feet on two levels.
The changes would help Discovery World accommodate more visitors, including students on school field trips, and earn more revenue, Brennan said. Around 70% of the science and technology museum's roughly $8 million in annual revenue is earned by Discovery World, with the remaining revenue provided through private donations.
Also, the changes would create a "totally new, totally different" experience for Discovery World visitors, Brennan said.
That includes space to house larger traveling exhibits – something the museum currently lacks, he said.
The project amounts to the first major renovation at Discovery World since the museum opened the facility in 2006 at 500 N. Harbor Drive.
"We need to refresh and renovate exhibits," Brennan said.
The project's lead donor is Reiman Foundation Inc., which is providing an undisclosed amount. The donation is large enough to enable Discovery World to begin work on the addition this summer, Brennan said.
Discovery World hopes to raise the remaining funds for the $18 million project to be able to do the additional work around the same time, he said. Under that schedule, the entire project would be completed by the end of 2018.
The museum also wants to raise another $7 million over the next five years for its endowment and building maintenance fund.
Discovery World draws around 300,000 to 350,000 visitors annually and hosts around 50 events, including weddings and business meetings.
The improvements would help increase those numbers, Brennan said.
The one-story addition will be built on the museum's north side, on space where Discovery World now hosts seasonal events in a tent.
The expansion will provide room for traveling exhibits, additional space for catered events, a larger lunch room for students on field trips and more space for Discovery World's summer camps.
The museum needs approval for the addition from the Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners, from which Discovery World leases the land. The board is scheduled to review that request, which also will undergo Common Council review, at its Thursday meeting.
Another 5,000 square feet of new exhibit space would be created by converting one of the museum's theaters on the building's north side. The museum only needs one theater, Brennan said, and will keep it operating in the building's east side.
Also, staff offices would be moved from the mezzanine level to the building's third floor.
Those former offices would be converted into 6,000 square feet of new exhibit space, including a section on public health, medical research and careers in health care that is being created with the Medical College of Wisconsin, Brennan said.
The changes would include a more centrally located admissions area, and a gift shop tied to the remodeled exhibit space's exit.
Along with serving a larger audience and earning more revenue, the museum will have additional resources to offer programs for children who don't receive enough science and math classroom instruction, Brennan said. That would strengthen its impact on the community, he said.
Discovery World is in a good position to finance the project, Brennan said.
The museum had a rough beginning after Discovery World moved to the lakefront from its former home at 815 N. James Lovell St. (That building was sold in 2013 to the Milwaukee Public Museum, which in March announced plans to move to a new downtown location within the next 10 years.)
Discovery World received bad early reviews from some visitors in part because the museum opened before all of its exhibits were completed.
Also, the economic collapse in 2008, just two years after the lakefront building opened, hurt the museum's finances, Brennan said. The workforce was reduced, and those who stayed took pay cuts.
"Those were really hard steps to take," Brennan said, "but were necessary."
The museum has since largely eliminated its annual operating losses, and eventually paid off the debt on its new building, he said.
Some exhibits have been revamped, with the addition and other planned changes designed to help Discovery World continue to be sustainable, Brennan said.
As community needs change, the new space "gives us the ability to roll with that," he said.
Discovery World's addition would be another change to the downtown lakefront area in recent years.
Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. is completing its office tower, which will open this August at 745 N. Prospect Ave.
About one block west of Discovery World, Barrett Lo Visionary Development LLC plans to begin construction this year on The Couture apartment high-rise at 909 E. Michigan St.
Also, city officials are seeking funds to create the Lakefront Gateway Plaza, which would replace about 1 acre of vacant green space on the east side of Lincoln Memorial Drive, between Discovery World and The Couture.
Some of those projects are part of the development vision that Discovery World founder Michael Cudahy, a 93-year-old philanthropist and retired business executive, has long had for the lakefront.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel