Creative Discovery Museum gets $1 million Volkswagen gift for $10 million capital campaign

Contributed rendering / The Creative Discovery Museum's planned STEMzone exhibit is shown in a rendering.

Volkswagen is giving $1 million to the Creative Discovery Museum's capital campaign in one of the biggest gifts to the downtown Chattanooga attraction since it opened 25 years ago.

"That gift is a game-changer," said Henry Schulson, the museum's executive director. He said the donation helps put the museum on a path toward hitting its $10 million goal for the Ignite Discovery campaign.

Tom du Plessis, president and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, said the museum is a staple in the community and has been committed to educating and inspiring children for the last two-and-a-half decades.

"We are proud to invest in their future, and look forward to collaborating on the creation of the STEMzone," he said about a new exhibit where the money primarily will go to focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

The gift comes at a time when the museum, as other attractions, has had to limit attendance since reopening after the economic lock down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Schulson said the VW donation, the largest non-endowment gift to the museum since its opening, won't be used for operating expenses. Rather, the museum official said, it will go to the capital effort that will finance renovations, updated and new exhibits, expanded outreach programs and a more vibrant urban space on its 321 Chestnut St. plaza.

He said the museum probably will lose between $800,000 to $1 million this year due to the pandemic.

"We're going to take a financial hit this year," Schulson said. He said the museum qualified for federal coronavirus-related aid and has a credit line along with an endowment, noting it has laid off about 44 part-time staffers.

"We'll be able to get through this year," Schulson said. "Looking to next year, the goal is a balanced budget or slight deficit. It will be very tight."

With the VW gift, the museum is at $7.1 million in its capital campaign that kicked off in January but was suspended in March after the pandemic hit. The museum resumed the campaign in September, Schulson said.

photo Contributed rendering / The STEMzone exhibit at the Creative Discovery Museum will focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

He said the museum, which reopened in June, has seen a steady increase in attendance. During October, its numbers are at about 50% compared to the same month a year ago, Schulson said.

Schools are one area he doesn't expect to see coming back soon, but the museum is doing outreach and developing a virtual initiative.

"It may take a year before schools come back to the museum," Schulson said, even though the museum is undertaking rigorous cleaning during the day, requiring masks for visitors age 5 and above, and limiting attendance to about 20% of typical numbers.

"Eventually, we'll get back to normal," he said. "A lot depends on a vaccine and effective therapies to treat [the coronavirus]."

His sense, Schulson said, is that the museum "won't get fully back next year."

However, concerning renovations and updates, the museum is already starting to move ahead, he said. To gain more space, it's shifting administrative offices out of the building and across Fourth Street to the 401 Chestnut building where it's leasing 5,000 square feet in PlayCore's former location, Schulson said.

He doesn't expect the museum to close to make its future upgrades, which will go into next year with a completion likely around June 2022.

The STEMzone will be geared toward older children and charged with building skills required of a future ready workforce, where kids can design and build their own car or rocket while developing critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning skills, according to the museum.

The museum has said it will double the size of its early childhood exhibit Little Yellow House, transforming it into the Little Farm House, allowing toddlers to immerse themselves in a space showcasing farm-to-market production of food. Next door, the PlayGym will teach parents age-appropriate activities to aid in the development of the museum's youngest visitors.

The rooftop area also will be built out to add to the total square footage of the building without making extensive additions to its footprint, according to the museum.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.