Something had to give.
The match was lit 18 months ago when the members-only cigar club, Fool’s End, opened beneath the Families First Children’s Museum in a shared building on West Front Street. Children’s Museum staff and patrons have been complaining about smoke smell in the exhibit hall ever since — an unusual problem in an age when indoor smoking seems as antiquated as a nicotine-stained bar back.
The cigar club devised its business strategy “with the sole and exclusive purpose of evading” the state law that bans smoking in enclosed public places, according to Missoula County attorneys. A pending county lawsuit against the club, filed in February 2017 on behalf of the City-County Board of Health, hasn’t resolved the dispute. Neither has the landlord, the owner of the adjacent Tamarack Brewing Company. In Dec. 2017 — the busy season for indoor kids’ attractions — the Children’s Museum closed indefinitely until executive director Nick Roberts could find a way forward.
There were two options, as Roberts saw it. The museum could identify the source of smoke, modify the building to stop it from contaminating the museum space, then remediate the museum of existing exposure. Or the museum could try to exit its lease, which has two years remaining, and relocate.
On March 30, Roberts announced that the museum is leaving downtown. It will reopen in 4 to 6 months at Toole Crossing, on the Westside, in a space next to another kids’ learning center, the SpectrUM Discovery Area.
Roberts says the move offers exciting opportunities to “start fresh” after more than a decade downtown. The departure from Front Street, on the other hand, sounds like less of a clean break. Lawyers are involved.
“Our counsel has advised that we have grounds for vacating the building and exiting the lease,” Roberts says.
The only tests examining tobacco exposure in the museum were conducted by Roberts’ organization in January, which he says “did definitively show” evidence of tobacco contaminants. Neither the landlord nor county prosecutors have conducted assessments to pinpoint the source of the exposure, Roberts says. When the museum tried to negotiate for mitigation and remediation work, “it just became apparent to us that it was going to be challenging,” he says.
Tamarack owner Josh Townsley did not respond to an email and two phone calls for comment.
The Children’s Museum’s unexpected move comes two years before a planned reopening inside the new Missoula Public Library building, after it’s completed in 2020. That vision called for shared space between the museum and SpectrUM, a partnership the two organizations will now begin testing sooner than anticipated.
The two organizations’ adjacent spaces at Toole Crossing will serve as a “living laboratory” for the sorts of collaboration that SpectrUM was gearing up to undertake in 2020, says Nathalie Wolfram, associate director of UM Broader Impacts Group, SpectrUM’s parent organization.
SpectrUM relocated to Toole Crossing from its downtown location last June, recognizing, Wolfram says, that Northside and Westside residents had been eager to add kid-friendly gathering places in their neighborhoods. With the Children’s Museum as its soon-to-be-neighbor, Wolfram says, SpectrUM is poised to contribute even more to the community. The organization already plans to let the museum use its classroom space and exhibit area for Families First parenting-education programs.
For the Children’s Museum, the move is an opportunity to redesign the facility from the ground up, Roberts says. In February, the museum sold most of its exhibits and furnishings at a silent auction at which bidders were required to sign waivers acknowledging that the items had been exposed to tobacco. What didn’t sell was donated: Franklin School, for instance, received the climbing wall, Roberts says.
The museum will be fundraising over the coming months to purchase new exhibits for the redesigned, all-new Toole Crossing space. The museum received more than 20,000 annual visitors on Front Street, and Roberts is confident that community support for the museum hasn’t waned as a result of the smoke-out. The museum plans to maintain the Westside location as well even after the library opens in 2020. “Who would have thought that tobacco smoke would have sparked such a dramatic transition?” Roberts says.
The county filed its latest motion for summary judgment in its case against Fool’s End on March 22, a week before the Children’s Museum announced its move. The case will carry on, deputy county attorney John Hart says, even though the county is now fighting to air out an empty room.