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In bid to survive, Mobius consolidates its two museums under one roof

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 25, 2020

On a typical morning, the Mobius Science Center would be humming with the sound of children and families meandering through interactive exhibits.

On Friday, it was nearly silent as only a handful of kids were inside, engaged in virtual learning with rapt attention.

But quiet should not be confused for stagnation.

Mobius Spokane has been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the nonprofit’s leaders say it is evolving faster than ever to meet the fast-changing needs of the community it serves, all while having to lay off staff and endure the uncertainty of a shutdown.

“We were able to adjust and think of ways that we can still help our community, support our community, and fulfill our mission,” said Mobius CEO Karen Hudson. “That’s been our whole goal while we’ve been closed – what can we do to make sure that we’re relevant?”

Those efforts culminated this month when, in a bid for survival and sustainability, Mobius announced it is bringing its two museums – the play-based children’s museum and the inquiry-based science center – under a single roof. It’s the latest step in the nonprofit’s evolution over the last decade, which saw it overcome financial struggle and relocation on multiple occasions only to see the world screech to a halt in March.

A sign of the economic times that have brought agony to businesses and nonprofits alike, Mobius won’t reopen its Children’s Museum at River Park Square. Instead, the children’s museum will be consolidated into the science center at the Washington Water Power building’s Post Street annex.

Together, the two museums will now be known as the Mobius Discovery Center.

Museum officials say the transition will better position the nonprofit for a long-lasting future, no longer requiring it to divide resources and efforts across two properties.

The most popular exhibits from the former children’s museum will be brought over to the new Discovery Center, including the water table, the yellow digger, the Enchanted Forest, and Cooper’s Corner. (If you don’t know what those are, just ask a Spokane youngster.)

“The consolidation is not a negative, it is a positive. We’re excited,” Hudson said.

Pandemic pains

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Hudson said Mobius was bustling with visitors and preparing for its busiest season, when students are on spring break.

Then, abruptly, Mobius was forced to close both locations in March. Like so many businesses and institutions, Mobius assumed it would be closed for only a few weeks.

“We were under the hope that it was just a short-term situation. We actually spent two weeks really deep cleaning, getting the facility ready for everyone to come back,” Hudson said. “We never imagined six months later, we would not have our doors open.”

The nonprofit has been forced to lay off or reduce the hours of a majority of its staff, all while scrambling to pivot and offer new services to the public. The museum is closed to visitors and in-person instruction is still out of reach, but Mobius has gotten creative.

Among several new offerings, it has launched a series of live virtual STEM programs. On Oct. 5, for example, it will offer a virtual program that allows kids to dissect an owl pellet, distributed as part of a materials kit, as a remote instructor guides them through the process.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Mobius distributed hundreds of STEM learning kits to local students.

“It’s been a big undertaking, for us to develop new programs to a landscape that’s evolving, and evolving in a way we can’t predict. So even if people can’t be experiencing Mobius at Mobius, our new programs are allowing them to experience Mobius wherever they are,” said Amanda Gilliam, a spokesperson for the nonprofit.

Meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess as to when the museum will be able to reopen to the public. While Gov. Jay Inslee allowed museums to reopen at 25% capacity in Phase 2 of his Safe Start Washington reopening plan, those centered on an interactive experience like Mobius were left out.

“We are patiently waiting for some guidelines for museums…that are more hands on. And once we get those guidelines, then we’ll know what needs to happen to open,” Hudson said.

When that day comes, Hudson added, “we will be shouting it from the rooftop.”

Decision to consolidate

As the museums remained closed and Spokane County sat in Phase 2 this summer – and the possibility of students returning to class virtually in the fall became closer to a reality – Mobius leaders decided a serious change was in order.

When deciding where to make its home of the future, the choice was clear.

Avista Corp., which owns the Washington Water Power Building, leases the square foot space to Mobius for $1 a year. The Children’s Museum had been a tenant of River Park Square for nearly 15 years, occupying a premium commercial space. According to its most recent filing with the IRS, the nonprofit spent about $72,000 on rent in fiscal year 2018. River Park Square is owned by Centennial Properties, an affiliate of the Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.

But beyond the simple cash savings, the nonprofit’s leaders believe consolidating the locations allows Mobius to offer an improved experience.

“This is really bringing the best of both worlds into one locations,” said Kelli Hawkins, president of the Mobius’ Board of Directors. “We noticed that a lot of the kids, as much as they love the Children’s Museum, they love coming (to the science center), too. Having both of those hands on activities in one location, I think it’ll be great for families, as well.”

The Discovery Center

Looking forward, the efficiency gained by operating in a single space will allow the nonprofit to do more proactive outreach into classrooms and the broader community, Hawkins noted.

“Mobius is more than just what you see in between these four walls. It’s not just a place you go to; I mean, they are truly a community service,” Hawkins said.

The move will also provide Mobius, and its visitors, some stability after several years and multiple attempts to find a permanent space to call home.

The future, leaders of the nonprofit believe, remains bright. The Discovery Center is still planning for two new exhibits in 2021, one called “Eat Well, Play Well,” and another dubbed the “Zoo in You,” a rather timely look at the microbial environment of the human body.

“One thing that we are proud of at Mobius is that we are innovative, we are flexible, and we love our community. So we will come up with anything to help support them,” Hudson said.

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