A rendering gives a glimpse at the mill zone, one of four key exhibits planned for the new Children's Discovery Museum of Central Maine in Waterville. Credit: Courtesy of Field Magnet Design LLC

WATERVILLE, Maine — Children can pretend to be fishing in one area, prepare a pizza in another and explore Maine’s shoe-making and mill industries as part of interactive exhibits at the new Children’s Discovery Museum of Central Maine in Waterville.

Leaders hope the creative activities and significantly larger space for play will make the museum a go-to place for families once it opens.

The museum bought the building at 7 Eustis Parkway in Waterville — formerly First Congregational United Church of Christ — in November 2020 and is updating and renovating the space. Leaders also continue to raise funds to complete the $1.6 million project.

The Children’s Discovery Museum of Central Maine will open its new location at 7 Eustis Parkway in Waterville. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

More organizations are seeing opportunity in Waterville as the city grows and changes with its downtown revitalization, including an emphasis on the arts. After closing the Augusta location in March 2020 because it became too expensive and challenging to sustain during the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s museum leaders identified Waterville as a prime spot for reopening.

Waterville’s central location and ongoing redevelopment projects make it particularly attractive, Executive Director Amarinda Keys said. The new museum will also maintain proximity to Augusta.

“There had already been rumblings about growing in 2014,” said Keys, who got involved that year and became director in 2015. “We were a really small storefront tucked away in Augusta. We were renting. Between then and now, we’ve been working to grow our organization in size and capacity.”

Caitlin Walker, Children’s Discovery Museum of Central Maine programs coordinator, stands in the building that will be the museum’s new home in Waterville on Thursday. She shows the mobile museum, an effort that has continued while the space is under renovation. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

As leaders scouted locations in Waterville and formed partnerships, it made sense to choose the city as its new home. There are children’s museums in Bangor and Portland, and having one in Waterville is more centralized, Program Coordinator Caitlin Walker said.

The old museum was 3,000 square feet and served about 10,000 people in Augusta and surrounding towns. The new building is 25,000 square feet, and the museum will occupy more than half, while a day care uses the rest, Keys said. Leaders hope the number of visitors doubles at the new space.

The museum will include two 3,000-square-foot halls for Maine-themed exhibits and events — one with a stage and kitchen — space for birthday parties, offices, storage and expanded bathrooms. An HVAC system installation is wrapping up, and the museum is seeking bids for a contractor to handle ADA accessibility and fire safety code renovations, among other changes.

Keys and her team hope to reopen in the next six months, but it depends on factors such as how quickly they can raise the remaining funds and maneuver supply chain issues. They have raised $569,700 for the project and still need $230,000, which is being used for the design and fabrication of exhibits, Keys said.

The museum received a $700,000 loan from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program, including $67,000 grant funding, she said. Leaders used $500,000 to purchase the building and the remaining $200,000 is for renovations.

The four main exhibits — called the rural, mill, city and watershed zones — are inspired by Maine and will feature activities and encourage exploration through play, Keys said. Lead designer Rusty Lamer, who owns Field Magnet Design LLC and specializes in creating installations for kids, is overseeing the fabrication process, she said.

A rendering shows the rural zone, including a research cabin, which one of the exhibits planned for the new Children’s Discovery Museum of Central Maine in Waterville. Credit: Courtesy of Field Magnet Design LLC

For example, children can visit the post office, hardware store and lemonade stand in the city zone, meant to cultivate social skills, experiment occupations and learn elementary economics, according to the museum’s website. The mill zone focuses on STEM learning — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and will feature industrial buildings clustered around a clock tower that will invite children to explore paper, textiles and shoe making.

Children can inspect gems and sea shells, donated by local collector Bill Harmon, in the rural zone, Keys said. The area focuses on nature and developing empathy for creatures while an elm tree, named Evelyn, towers over them.

“Most of the time, they’re here with adults, and we’re always looking for opportunities to get the adults involved in imaginative play,” Keys said.

As the museum works to reopen, programming continues, including summer camp and an after-school program that returns in October for five weeks and offers sessions to two age groups. Walker also runs a mobile museum at farmers markets, events and with local schools.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of funding the Children’s Discovery Museum of Central Maine received from the United States Department of Agriculture.