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Exploration Place
Wichita, Kansas

Exploration Place: Great Vision
on a Grand Scale

The widow of visionary Walt Disney was asked to speak at Disney World's Grand Opening. As she was introduced, the Master of Ceremonies turned to her and said effusively, "I just wish Walt could have seen this!" Mrs. Disney stood, moved to the microphone and answered emphatically, "He did."

Vision is the forerunner of anything great; and the new Exploration Place in Wichita, Kansas is the result of great vision on a grand scale. This does not diminish the enormity of effort in bringing the vision to pass. Still, without an ability to "see" the finished project a decade before the first shovel full of dirt was lifted from the banks of Wichita's Arkansas River (accent on kansas, thank you very much), Exploration Place might have remained a good idea that came and went.

 Instead, something very powerful occurred. People with vision and with the ability to make dreams come true, began dreaming together. The city of Wichita and a group of civic leaders studied the possibility of combining the city-run Omnisphere and the Children's Museum to create a place where children (of all ages) could enjoy learning in a very "please touch" environment. Part science museum and part theme park, Exploration Place fulfills this dream by allowing visitors to ask questions and find the answers as they explore the Center's many spacious exhibits and hands-on centers.

Before this dream came true, however, many individuals, corporations and foundations concluded that it was time to imagine big things for Wichita. It was often said that Wichita, as the air capital city, ruled the air, but Exploration Place would demonstrate its entrepreneurial and philanthropic prowess on land.

In 1989, the Wichita City Council affirmed its interest in joining the Omnisphere and Wichita Children's Museum into a $12 million facility. A committee, chaired by Phillip S. Frick, was assigned to research the ambitious venture. After several months of study, the committee determined that a larger undertaking was not only feasible, but also preferable. The increased 1993 estimate was now about $40 million. Velma Wallace, the widow of longtime Wichita aviation executive Dwane Wallace, endorsed the idea with a very generous pledge of $10 million. Then the Sedgwick County Commission voiced its support with an initial pledge of $20 million. The dream was taking shape.

By 1995, the campaign to bring a massive learning center to downtown Wichita was picking up speed. The Wichita City Council agreed to spend $1 million for property, adjust a major boulevard and donate 20 acres for the museum's use.

Fund-raising counsel, Robert F. Hartsook, president of Wichita-based Hartsook and Associates, was hired to provide a feasibility study and on-going fundraising support. Said Phil Frick, "Our fundraising goal was solidified after we received the final architectural plans and the building for Exploration Place was given equal weight with exhibits and programs. That number turned out to be $62 million. Bob Hartsook was very helpful in outlining the scope of gifts we were likely to need in order to reach our goal."

The campaign goal included the cost of the building, improvements to the 20-acre site, exhibits, programs, staff costs and an endowment. Through a creative plan, the City of Wichita provided a lease of property to the county. Sedgwick County, owners of the building, extended a long-term agreement with Exploration Place to house its exhibits and programs -- a symbiotic arrangement that would benefit the owners and tenants, as well as neighboring businesses and the Wichita community.

Forward thinking foundations, corporations and individuals added their names and financial weight to the effort. Boeing Company contributed another $1.5 million in late 1995. By 1996, gifts were becoming more frequent. In December, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation pledged $250,000 toward the project. Other gifts followed: Forrest C. Lattner Foundation donated $510,000 in April (eventually increased to $1 million), Wichita philanthropists Oliver and Betty Elliott gave $500,000 in October, and the Kansas Health Foundation closed out 1996 with a pledge of $3.2 million (upped later to $5.5 million).

The next few years saw more support and additional gifts. In February 1997, the William T. Kemper Foundation gave $2 million toward the project. On May 31, 1997 the groundbreaking ceremony for Exploration Place signaled the beginning of an exciting new phase. In August, Mrs. Heber Beardmore donated $2 million in honor of her late husband and Raytheon Aircraft threw in their support with a gift of $2.5 million.

The next year, Koch Industries and Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation gave a total of $1 million. Their gift came in February of 1998. Kansas Legislature approved a contribution of $1.5 in the spring of 1998. Southwestern Bell donated $300,000 in May and the descendants of Wichita aviation pioneers Walter and Olive Ann Beech gave nearly $1.5 million in September 1998. Bloomfield Foundation closed out the year with a $1 million gift. Another million-dollar gift came in from Cessna in the spring of 2000.

Dr. Alphonse DeSena was hired from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1993 to serve as Exploration Place's president. "Moving from Pittsburgh and its wide base of corporate giving, I wondered to what extent this community could stretch to achieve a $62 million goal. There was actually significant support from many Wichita corporate and philanthropic sectors. What was also impressive, was how the campaign came together through the efforts of a relatively small staff. Much of that is due to the enormous effort of Phil Frick. Consequently, we were able to accomplish our goal without spending a lot of money. The percentage allocated to fund raising was probably less than most major campaigns. Our development staff was not large. Without question, the initial $30 million was great incentive, but there was still another $32 million to raise. Of course Phil Frick worked hard and steady from the beginning. I was the first paid staff member and we just have one director of development and one assistant. It is still amazing how much was achieved," said Dr. DeSena.

Gifts were reciprocated by either a "place" as an exhibition sponsor, or a "plaque" with name recognition. At least one Wichita business gave an initial gift to sponsor an exhibition, and then, as the building began its rise along the side of the river, they came back with a second gift for a naming opportunity. More mass. Greater velocity.

"I think the most important lesson we learned was that prospective donors want to be educated about the project. They want to know why the project is important to the community. This takes substantially more effort and time than is usually expected," offered Chairman Frick. "We have received extraordinary gifts from dozens of individuals, corporations and foundations. Considering these were solicited and obtained over an eight-year period, they were all instrumental in continuing the momentum and validating the importance of our project," he added. "Throughout the campaign, Bob Hartsook offered ongoing expertise and I really doubt we could have achieved our goal without his help. His most important addition was probably the influence in the overall competency of the campaign," added President DeSena.

All of Wichita and environs have enjoyed a mutual pride in unveiling Exploration Place to the world. Featuring more than 98,000 square feet of indoor space, with fascinating, interactive exhibits, theaters and programs, Exploration Place is a mecca for the imagination. The Center offers plenty to read and more to explore, but it is definitely not a "textbook" library or museum. No one will ask you to lower your voice or keep your hands to your sides. Rather, visitors of all ages are encouraged to get involved, ask questions and try things out on their own. Children visiting Exploration can stick their hands into a tornado of vapor, crease sheets of paper into airplanes and throw them across the room, push the buttons, play in the water and follow the directions...to explore.

"There were," said Wichita Mayor Bob Knight, "a lot of back-seat drivers: 'Don't get too bold. Don't dream these great, exciting dreams,' because they could never be." The opening of Exploration Place in the spring of 2000 was literally a dream come true. What some cities would consider a flight of fancy, Wichitans saw as an opportunity. The idea of raising $62 million would exceed the scope of imagination for many, but like the dream makers of Exploration Place, great visionaries have always made life more interesting for the rest of life's explorers.


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