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February 21, 2010

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, February 21, 2010

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Virginia Museum of Natural History may establish a presence at a military base that soon will be history - once the base is redeveloped.

Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, home to the nation's largest stone fort, is occupied by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command but is scheduled to close in 2011.

At that time, a Federal Area Development Authority will start managing the site on the state's behalf. The state will hold the title to land and buildings, and historic buildings will remain, but a developer may be hired to redevelop, manage and market the real estate, according to the authority's Web site.

Preston Bryant, who was state secretary of natural resources under former Gov. Tim Kaine, has expressed interest in the museum having a presence at the 570-acre base once it is redeveloped.

Museum trustee Conover Hunt of Hampton, who is the authority's deputy director, also is interested. She told the board of trustees Saturday that about 1.6 million people live in Hampton Roads - the largest metropolitan area in Virginia - but no natural history entity is there.

The VMNH board plans to hold its next meeting on May 1 at Fort Monroe. Trustees want to look around in case the museum is able to have a presence there.

But until it is decided what the base will become, the museum cannot figure out what type of presence is possible, said board Chairman Pam Armstrong.

A presence could range from an information kiosk to a satellite museum, depending on how much money is made available to fund it, she indicated.

The idea is a long way from becoming a reality.

"We don't have any money ... at this time" to fund a presence at the base, and the state is unlikely to provide funds anytime soon, said Armstrong.

Still, the Chesapeake Bay would be a great "learning laboratory" for museum scientists, Hunt said.

The museum draws tourists from throughout Virginia and nearby states, but many of its visitors are from the Southside.

It currently is taking part in efforts to revitalize Martinsville's uptown central business district to try and lure more people to the area.

"We need to get bodies in this town" to help the local economy thrive, said trustee Mervyn King of Martinsville, who owns and develops buildings uptown.

He told the board that a goal of local leaders involved in the revitalization is to have three at least cultural institutions - the museum, Piedmont Arts and a local history museum to be established in the historic former courthouse - in close proximity.

King said amenities are needed to "appeal to a broad variety of people" because everyone is not interested in the same things.

In attracting tourists, "we all need to cooperate," he said. "One person (or entity) cannot do it all."

Also Saturday, trustees learned that the museum currently has about 620 members. That number is down by about 100 from a year ago, according to Director of Development Debbie Lewis.

People who buy museum memberships receive perks such as free admission for a year and invitations to exhibit openings and other special events.

Lewis said she thinks the drop in memberships is largely due to the museum discontinuing a newsletter that kept members informed of happenings there. Not knowing what was going on, they may have not been able to determine when their memberships expired, she said.

A committee is developing ways to try and regain past members and create new benefits to attract new members, Lewis added.

The trustee board also learned that:

"The museum is developing relationships with the Danville Science Center and the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.

Both facilities have exhibits on dinosaurs and are jointly promoting them, said Ryan Barber, the museum's marketing and external affairs director.

The living museum combines aspects of a wildlife park, science museum, aquarium, botanical preserve and planetarium, its Web site shows.

Hunt said the facility seems to her to be "more like a zoo" than a museum.

"A "Mollusk Madness!" fund-raiser will be held from 7 p.m. to midnight March 27 at the museum. The event will feature music, an oyster roast, barbecue and NCAA basketball tournament games on large screens.

The name is a play on the "March Madness" tournament.

Individual seating as well as corporate sponsorships are available.

"The 23rd Annual VMNH Foundation Thomas Jefferson Awards will be held from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 21 at the museum.

The awards recognize Virginia businesses, groups and residents for their contributions to, and support for, natural sciences.

"About $3.4 million in pledges have been received toward the museum foundation's capital campaign. The goal is $5 million, Lewis said.

The campaign raises money to pay for the museum's permanent exhibits.

The board met for about 10 minutes in closed session to discuss legal and personnel matters but took no action afterward.