On the precipice of reopening in a new location in Lincoln Park, the 90-year-old Duluth Children’s Museum is suddenly at risk of closing due to hardship brought upon it by COVID-19.

“It’s not a comfortable position for our organization to be in,” Erica Henkel, museum board chair and president, said. “You hate to admit things are not going well … (but) we are reaching the point we need to ask for help.”

At a minimum, the museum will require $25,000 in the next 60 days to stay afloat, Henkel wrote in a letter to the mayor and Duluth City Council on Friday.

The museum was reeling from a difficult week, learning it wouldn’t be receiving any funding under Mayor Emily Larson’s proposed tourism tax budget — an estimated $20,000 blow for an organization in the process of moving into a new facility at 2125 W. Superior St.

The museum also found out $70,000 in state legacy funds wouldn’t be made available in 2021, meaning funding streams were running dry at a time when the museum has seen a 93% reduction in visitors in 2020.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The museum had been anticipating a vibrant new reopening, after moving from rented space in the nearby Clyde Iron Works complex.

Erica Henkel
Erica Henkel

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Henkel said. “We’re so incredibly close to our goal of being in a new building, and building equity instead of paying rent to somebody else.”

To date in 2020, the museum has had only 1,440 visitors, down from 20,794 last year. A dinosaur exhibit that would have been an economic driver this summer was instead seen by few.

“We also normally have about 4,500 attendees at our annual Bubble Festival event, which was canceled this year due to COVID,” Henkel said.

Using federal COVID-19 relief dollars, Henkel said the museum was open this summer on a limited basis in order to fulfill an obligation to its annual members. But it’s now closed during its move, and due to the current shutdown order in Minnesota.

The museum requires an infusion of money to repair a furnace, and finish restorations and clean-up of its new space before it can assemble exhibits in advance of reopening.

The city declined to make anyone available for comment Friday.

Mayor Emily Larson addressed the situation earlier this week, saying: “(T)he cuts that we are projecting are not really fun to make.”

The City Council votes on the budget at its meeting Monday.

The museum was among nine entities left out of receiving tourism tax dollars in 2021. The city's tourism tax dollars took a 25% dive during the pandemic year — from an expected $12 million down to $9 million.

Among entities eligible for tourism funding, only Spirit Mountain is expected to see its allocation rise, from $275,000 to $500,000 — a fact not lost on Henkel.

"We needed the City Council to understand that there is not just one organization out there put in a difficult situation this year,” she said, talking about her letter to the city.

Henkel isn't anticipating the mayor or council will reverse course. Instead, the museum is turning to crowdfunding to raise money. A button on the museum’s website asks for support and donations through giveMN.org.

“I’m putting my hope in the fact that a lot of people in our community care about the organization,” she said. “Our message has really been lost this year, like so many businesses and organizations that are suffering.”

Another letter writer to the city, describing themselves as a retired Duluth teacher, said the museum is importantly located in a part of town where there are underserved families and children of color.

"Duluth has benefited from the Duluth Children’s Museum for many years," the letter said.

Henkel aims to tap into that community support. She’s hoping people will see the museum as an asset, and she's counting on small donations from a large number of people.

“We’re really hoping the community will step up,” Henkel said. “If we can get those last renovations done and furnace repaired, we’ll be set up and able to open in spring.”