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At long last, Bell Museum gets money for new building

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Supporters of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota have been campaigning for years for state funding to build a new facility. That request was finally fulfilled on the last day of the just-ended legislative session, awaiting only Gov. Dayton's signature to make it a reality. The Bell Museum houses some 4 million specimens of animals, birds, plants, insects and other species that are studied by University of Minnesota faculty and students. Thousands of school children every year take field trips to the museum to learn more about Minnesota's natural history. But the museum building is deteriorating, according to staff. It's 75 years old and its 75-year old plumbing, electrical and heating systems frequently break down. The basement floods, it has mold and rodent problems, and dramatic swings in temperature and humidity are threatening to do damage to the collections housed in the building, they say. The Bell Museum board has proposed a new $51.5 million museum be built on the U of M's St. Paul campus, to be combined with a new planetarium to replace one that was part of the old Minneapolis Central Library, but was razed along with that building in 2002. The project was left off the university's bonding "wish list" this session, but it's been a top priority for State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who helped broker the construction bills. So she and other lawmakers devised a creative legislative solution that will fund construction of the new museum, according to Politics in Minnesota. The project is covered in a separate bill, which says the University of Minnesota will let the bonds for the $51.5 million museum proposal, but the state will essentially repay the debt. To make that happen, lawmakers added $3.5 million each year in extra state aid to the U, from 2016 to 2041, to fund the project’s debt service. In the waning days of the session, advocates of the new Bell Museum had urged supporters to contact their lawmakers and ask them to support the project. Here are some of the reasons they cited.

1. STEM education and closing the achievement gap cannot wait another two years—an estimated 350,000 Twin Cities area jobs require STEM education, and that number will grow. 2. We are Minnesota-centric, not metro-centric. The Bell Museum and Planetarium has a statewide impact on K12 education through our MNSCU planetarium network, our Minnesota History of the Land Videos, our traveling exhibits, high school curriculum, and environmental residency programs. 3. The State’s Natural History Museum and Planetarium has a statewide impact by supporting Minnesota environmental organizations like Master Naturalists, Minnesota Ornithologists, Minnesota Audubon and Minnesota Native Plants Society with scientific collections and adult education programs. 4. We are turning away over 4,000 students annually because the school groups are too large for our current building. We no longer host the annual Beekeepers conference because it outgrew our capacity.

Now that the money has been allocated, the planning and design process will get underway in earnest. Museum officials are hoping to break ground in the spring of 2015.

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