Duck trails: City gets a sneak peek at new downtown art that will double as a scavenger hunt

A new mural on the Explore More Discovery Museum helps celebrate the museums 20th anniversary while adding a splash of color to downtown. (Photo courtesy of Matt Leech)

By Haley Thomas and Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributors

Explore More Discovery Museum will continue celebrating its 20th birthday this year with another artistic addition — the installation of bronze duckling statues spread throughout downtown Harrisonburg, which will create an immersive scavenger hunt for all ages. 

The Downtown Ducklings are slated to be installed this October, said Kelly Snow, development director for Explore More Discovery Museum and head of the Downtown Ducklings project. 

Snow offered the city council a sneak peek of the project at Tuesday’s council work session. 

What sets this scavenger hunt apart from others is the storybook that goes along with it, she said. The storybook, written by Marcia Zook and illustrated by Kathleen Johnston, follows the path of the ducklings throughout downtown Harrisonburg. Zook is Explore More’s exhibit director and Johnston is an elementary school teacher in Harrisonburg. 

Snow told The Citizen that everyone involved in the project wants to “give a nod to our town… it’ll be sort of an homage to the downtown area and anything connected to water.”

Snow said the idea for the project came to her after she visited a similar project in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The town is home to five life-size bronze moose statues positioned at various locations on the “Mudgy Moose Trail.” Snow also stumbled upon “Mice on Main” — a project in Greenville, South Carolina, where nine bronze mice have been installed as part of a scavenger hunt. Both the projects later incorporated a children’s book based on the statues and brought thousands of visitors to those towns. 

Snow said the other cities’ success with the projects inspired her to bring a similar idea back to Harrisonburg, with the hopes that it would “pull in tourists and engage existing community members to see downtown in a different way.”

She submitted the idea of Downtown Ducklings for a “Downtown Destination” grant — intended for projects that highlight the community and draw people downtown — to the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance team in 2019. 

“We really wanted to create an opportunity for families to explore more, even beyond the walls of our museum,” Snow told The Citizen.

Snow said the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance team loved the idea and offered the museum a grant of $10,000, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the project. 

The Downtown Ducklings will be unveiled at Explore More Discovery Museum’s 20th birthday bash on Oct. 14. Snow said the storybook will take a bit longer, but she hopes to release it by late December. 

Snow brought her location ideas for the duckling sculptures before the city council during Tuesday’s work session. The council voted unanimously in favor of the project, with the caveat that Explore More Discovery Museum will be responsible for maintenance and replacement of the sculptures, if needed.

“I think it’ll be a beautiful portrayal of our town,” Snow told The Citizen. “But from a duck’s perspective.”

First Fridays adds a new stop

The City Hall Atrium will now serve as a host venue for city employee artists and musicians during First Fridays of the Valley.

First Fridays of the Valley began in 2009 to gather community members and businesses on the first Friday evening of every month as a way to support Harrisonburg’s art and cultural district. More than 20 venues currently participate.

Amy Snider, acting deputy city manager, suggested the idea of developing a program to select city employee artists and musicians to “highlight for the community the many talents and gifts of our employees.” 

Several council members brought up the concern about whether the events would conflict with other groups — or city functions — that reserved the City Hall Atrium.

“We don’t want to undo something that we’ve already promised someone else,” said council member Chris Jones.

Snider said the First Friday events would exclude election season, which ultimately led the council to vote unanimously in favor of the project.

City doles out childcare funds and prepares to offer housing loans

Two organizations aimed at helping support and train childcare workers became the first recipients of money through the city’s childcare fund the city council created using part of American Rescue Plan Act funds Harrisonburg received through the 2021 federal legislation. 

The childcare fund, which totals $596,000, is intended to create more available childcare spots in the city through business support, licensing support, and providing support to the childcare facilities themselves. 

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, Luke Morgan, the city grants and program analyst, said one recipient is Early Education Business Consultants, which was awarded $50,000. Early Education Business Consultants is headquartered in Virginia Beach and provides training in management, leadership, safety, software and other areas to childcare facilities.

The Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center was the other recipient, Morgan said. That center hosts programs in which small businesses can participate. The programs are crafted with the goal of boosting performance. 

Each of the organizations received $50,000. 

About $446,000 in the city’s childcare fund is aimed at helping in-home childcare facilities become licensed or registered to operate — but that money has not yet been awarded. Those funds could be used for minor physical renovations, non-disposable materials, training for staff and to help with hiring efforts for facilities. Those funds, though, cannot cover salaries. 

Morgan also offered an update on another pot of money the city created with that ARPA money: funds aimed at supporting affordable housing. 

The application for housing projects that are eligible to receive some of the $2 million in housing-focused ARPA Funds opened on Aug. 1 and will stay open until Sept. 30, with funds expected to be doled as loans by the end of this year, Morgan said. 

The housing funds can cover projects, including the rehabilitation and preservation of existing properties, construction of new properties to be bought or rented, and the building of multi-family homes and single-family homes. To be considered, applicants must meet certain income requirements, and the city will evaluate proposed projects’ timeline, financial feasibility and site quality and readiness.

Editor’s note: Contributor Haley Thomas, one of the two reporters who covered Tuesday’s city council meeting, recently began working for Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, which four years ago provided the grant for the ducklings installation.  

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