The Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium is one step closer to building the first major expansion on the historic building dedicated to natural sciences.

The Museum Trustees voted earlier this month to move forward with the nearly $2.5 million addition that will create a 6,000 square foot, 3-story Science Annex on the rear of the museum. If all goes according to plan, the new space that will house hands-on exhibits for astronomy and meteorology will be open to the public before the Earth completes one full orbit around the sun.

The plan was first publicly revealed in September, at which time Executive Director Adam Kane expressed hope and optimism that a $2 million grant the museum applied for would fund the lion’s share of the project. In the intervening months the museum learned that particular application for CARES Act money from the federal Economic Development Administration was denied. While the loss of that grant raised challenges to the project, an unexpected influx of $500,000 from the Stockman Family Foundation got the museum close enough to its goal to commit to the project.

The museum has received a number of grants, donations and pledges in recent months that it has now raised about $2.1 million of the anticipated $2.5 million to construct the addition.

“We feel good about it,” said Kane. “We aren’t 100 percent there, but this is the way these campaigns go and we will continue to push and fund-raise the final amount.”

Other funding has included $350,000 from the Northern Borders Regional Commission to help with construction that will utilize mass timber, a building technique that is being eyed as an economic driver for Vermont’s forestry industry. The project and finished space will be a teaching tool to promote the construction technique that is growing in prominence.

The new space is also being designed to provide a future home for Community College of Vermont operations in St. Johnsbury. CCV has expressed its interest in moving from its current location on Main Street to new and renovated space that will be opened up on the basement floor of the museum.

Several other grants, plus a $600,000 private donation, have gotten the museum the bulk of the way to its goal. The institution will now turn to a public campaign to hopefully raise the final necessary funds.

“We’ve been in a capital campaign for this project for the last 2 years. We’ve been talking privately to funders and individuals close to the museum to enlist their help,” said Kane. “Now we are leaving that portion of the campaign and talking to all of those individuals who want to make a donation from $25 to $50,000. It’s asking everyone who knows and believes and loves the museum to help us do something great.”

Still needing to raise several hundred thousand dollars won’t stop the intended late April or early May ground-breaking for the Annex, said Kane, who noted their construction schedule would see the space opened to the public by late fall.

This coming year will be a busy one for the museum, which in parallel to the construction project has received funding and plans to complete a number of significant maintenance projects for the original building, including historic preservation work, roof work and masonry work on the walls and parapets. That work will be conducted in conjunction with the project, since much of it needs to occur with a specific sequence.

Kane said as disruptive as the pandemic has been, and likely will continue to be, to museum operations, this year will be an opportune time to undertake the major projects and in the end will be a boon for St. Johnsbury to further attract visitors and residents to town. Kane pointed to the museum project and the revitalization of the former Depot Square building downtown as significant investments that will hopefully help shape the town’s future.

In September, Ed Vilandrie, chairman of the Fairbanks Museum Board of Trustees, expressed optimism about the project being realized. “The planning is well underway – we are in good shape there,” he said at the time. Vilandrie said the board was very interested in preserving the integrity and history of the institution, while preparing it for the future.

And while planning for the expansion is well underway and largely in the hands of architects and engineers at this point, Kane said the museum is also planning for its annual winter hibernation. The museum typically shuts down for the better part of January to undertake necessary maintenance, exhibit projects and other tasks. This year will be no different. Kane said the museum will shut its doors on Monday, Dec. 28, and likely remain closed through all of January as staff and volunteers work their way through a lengthy list of projects.

Information on the museum’s fundraising campaign for the Science Annex will be available on the museum’s website.

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