Three Grants Help Local Museums

Tourism Takes Center Stage in Economic Grants

National Neon Sign Museum
The Elks Lodge is the future home of the National Neon Sign Museum

Providing features that attract visitors and improve the livability of a community has long been recognized as a key part of economic development strategy— a strategy that Northern Wasco County PUD recognized in its May 23 selection of three museums as recipients of their economic development grants.

Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum, the National Neon Sign Museum, and WonderWorks Children’s Museum all received funding to improve their facilities. The three grants totaled $38,750.

“The basic premise is that it has to be bricks and mortar,” explains Howard Gonser, president of the PUD Board of Directors. “The applicant has to be a nonprofit organization and bring some type of activity, preferably financial, to enhance the community.”

Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum

Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum
Memorabilia from local veterans will be among the exhibits featured at the Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum. Kathy Ursprung photos

The new Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum is being installed adjacent to American Legion Post 19 on East Second Street. A $15,000 PUD grant will be used for interior renovations of the museum space, including the removal of a tile dropped ceiling, allowing for better air circulation and suspension of aerial exhibits, electrical improvements, and repair and replacement of existing gallery walls.

“Any time we can do things about our veterans, I think that’s just outstanding,” Howard says. “If it wasn’t for veterans, we wouldn’t have the community and the United States we have today. It’s a great tribute to those who have contributed to our society, our country and our welfare.”

A collaborative effort of the Legion and the Mid-Columbia Veterans Memorial Committee, the museum has garnered broad community support from organizations including Oliver’s Floor Covering, the City of The Dalles, and The Dalles-Wasco County Library. The Veterans Memorial Committee provided seed money for the project.

Two years ago, committee volunteers working with the Wasco County Veterans Service Office installed displays in empty downtown storefronts donated for temporary use. The displays told the stories of local veterans, using their uniforms, letters, medals, and other memorabilia.

Lacking permanent display space, the displays were dismantled after the exhibits.

In February of this year, the space problem was solved through a memorandum of understanding between the Veterans Committee and the Legion Post.

From an economic development standpoint, the museum will provide another reason for visitors to come to historic downtown The Dalles. An estimated 18,000 people arrive in The Dalles by cruise ship alone, many of them veterans or family and friends of veterans, who would be interested in the museum, according to the grant application.

The museum will showcase stories of veterans in Wasco, Hood River, Klickitat, Sherman, and Skamania counties. A small museum show will feature locally made items and items crafted by veterans. National Neon Sign Museum The National Neon Sign Museum, set to open in August, was awarded $20,000 to complete plumbing and mechanical work for the museum, which is housed in the historic downtown Elk’s Lodge. “The museum is committed to providing an academic and culturally relevant environment that promotes opportunities for education, tourism, social events, and cultural development for all ages,” explains Executive Director David Benko in his grant application. Museum displays of advertising signage date from before the advent of electric signs—from the late 1800s to the current era—focusing on the impact of signage and its unique role in American History.

David describes it as having the characteristics of “super-star” museums: rising to national prominence, drawing a large number of guests, and displaying a world-recognized collection in a setting of exceptional architecture.

“This has the potential to be a phenomenal exhibit, I think,” says Howard. “If what I have heard in meetings comes to fruition, it will be a great exhibit for the community and bring a lot of people from different places. It’s really exciting.”

WonderWorks Children’s Museum

pose in the playhouse window
Micah Steinbeck left, and Montana Ferres, pose in the playhouse window at WonderWorks Children’s Museum.

WonderWorks will have better facilities for caring for the museum thanks to a $3,750 PUD grant that will be used to build a utility area in an unimproved storage area. The improvements will include a water heater, washer, and dryer, utility sink, and storage.

At present, the WonderWorks staff takes laundry home from the children’s museum. Cleaning exhibits is also a challenge because the museum currently only has bathroom sinks suitable for hand-washing. The additions will better support a healthy, clean environment for the children served.

“We’ve helped WonderWorks a bit in the past,” Howard says. “They do a great thing. I know people living outside the community who belong to WonderWorks because they bring their young children down. It’s a great educational and social opportunity for kids and parents.”

WonderWorks began in 1977 with the motto: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” The organization has gone through a variety of transformations through the years, including a two-year temporary closure, before purchasing its current, permanent location with the aid of the Port of The Dalles. The purchase was finalized in 2015.

As a result, the museum has increased its impact in the community, drawing more than 800 visitors per month and creating partnerships with local organizations to develop exhibits where children from 0 to 8 can grow, play, and learn.