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Hands-on museum hunts for new home

Great Explorations _ The Hands-on Museum would like to move to a new place on the approach to The Pier.

The museum's board of trustees wants to put up a building on the site of the former Doc Webb Senior Citizens Center. The city-owned property is a patch of grass right now.

"The Pier is an unbelievable visitor attraction," said Jamie Harden, president of the board. He added that officials at the 10-year-old museum always considered its present home at 1120 Fourth St. S a temporary stop.

The museum features interactive science exhibits. Some play tricks on the eye. Others test reactions and strength. Still others allow people to build models, play with balls and air pressure or see how strobe lights work. There is also a touch tunnel that requires people to feel their way through.

Discussions are still in their early stages, and costs are not certain. The museum expects to come up with the money through fund-raisers and other means.

Negotiations are serious.

Harden said two board members, Shawn Ulrich and David Brett, are talking with city officials.

"I believe there is some initial progress," he said.

In fact, Mayor David Fischer already appears sold on the idea of having the museum move to the downtown waterfront area.

"I would be receptive to the idea," Fischer said. "Having a museum there, across from the history museum would be appropriate. I think it would be a very good location for them. I think the public would like something like that."

He added, however, that certain legal questions would have to be cleared. John Wolf, the city's chief assistant attorney, said the property has a 10-year lease limitation, which would require approval by referendum for a permament building .

"I can only be confident that something can be worked out with the Hands-on Museum without too much difficulty," the mayor said.

To address fading interest in its attractions, museum directors this year decided to change its focus to reach children, from infants through 14-year-olds. Those efforts are continuing, said Harden, but will gain energy when the museum relocates.

Great Explorations leases property from Echelon International, which Harden said has been a patient landlord through the museum's recent financial difficulties.

"They have been a terrific benefactor," he said. "They have been fantastic and have gone beyond the call of duty. They have been totally understanding and been part of our team the whole time."

Darryl LeClair, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Echelon, a real estate and development company that was spun off from Florida Progress last year, said the firm has waived lease payments for 10 years.

"Great Explorations has been a good neighbor, so we care deeply for their survival and their success," he said. "We wish them all the best in their new endeavor."

The museum is not being asked to move, said LeClair, who added that his company's plans for the property "are not immediate."

However, he recently told museum officials that "it is time for them to start giving consideration for other options."

The past year has been challenging for Great Explorations, which saw a fall in attendance after the disturbances in October 1996. Construction on Fourth Street during the height of the museum's season also hurt, Harden said.

But things are getting better.

"This weekend was the best attendance we have had in several years," Harden said late last month, crediting a new maze and increased marketing efforts.