Vision for new Great River Road Discovery Center unveiled

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The vision for the McGregor Historical Museum expansion project—the new Great River Road Discovery Center—was unveiled at a May 15 public meeting. Tim Wren, director of museum services with design firm Edwards Creative, shows off some conceptual designs with help from project philanthropist Jeff Westphal (left) and McGregor Historical Society Board Member Christina Dollhausen. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

McGregor Historical Society Board President Mel Wild speaks about the Great River Road Discovery Center, which he said will be a unique destination for the area.

McGregor Historical Society board member Corky Bickel concluded the meeting by asking attendees to commit to a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If the project is right, it will happen. If the vision is right, it will happen. The only inhibiting factor we have is our own limitation of vision,” he reflected.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


The vision for the McGregor Historical Museum expansion project—the new Great River Road Discovery Center—was unveiled at a May 15 public meeting.


The event included representatives from the McGregor Historical Society board and city of McGregor, as well as project philanthropists Jeff and Jenifer Westphal. Design firm Edwards Creative and consultant Cynthia Sweet, executive director of the Iowa Museum Association, were also on hand. Speakers shared how the Great River Road Discovery Center (GRRDC) idea developed and how the project will move forward.


The GRRDC is the culmination of a four-year process that began when Jeff Westphal, whose wife Jenifer (Collins) Westphal is a McGregor native, visited the McGregor Historical Museum. An historic photo of a McGregor baseball team inspired him to share the community’s important, yet often under-appreciated, role in American history.


Project talks were initiated with the museum board, and the vision began to take off even more in 2021, when the Westphals purchased the Sullivan Opera House/hardware store building next door to the museum along with the Alexander Hotel. Their goal was to potentially expand the historical and cultural experience in McGregor.


“Everywhere I look, this town is like a crossroads of Iowa history, Mississippi River history, the road that runs up and down, the railroad,” said Jeff Westphal, a Philadelphia native who fell in love with McGregor since first visiting with Jenifer. He recalled telling his wife, “‘Honey, McGregor is still sitting there. It looks just like it did the day I first showed up, but it’s not going to stay that way. Sooner or later, someone is going to build something ugly or silly in this beautiful gem that’s been protected. It’s not too late to tell its story the right way.’” 


Although with admittedly little knowledge of historic preservation, Jeff Westphal said the couple vowed to “get the right professional people involved and work openly and transparently with people in town and work through this together over the next five or 10 years.”


One day, Westphal noted, “People will go, ‘Thank God somebody this generation got together and made it right for the future.’ If you’re wondering, ‘Why is he doing this?’ That’s why. This is not a money-making venture. I’m very concerned, frankly, that people with money will come and ruin McGregor. Hopefully what we’re going to do will happen in a way that makes McGregor a really lovely place to bring a family for an historic and artistic experience most people didn’t realize you could have right here in northeast Iowa. ”


That vision meshed perfectly with that of the McGregor Historical Society, said board president Mel Wild.


“From the board’s perspective, we’ve had this dream the past five years. A particular dream of mine was to make it a destination stop,” he said. “It started as a small expansion and kept getting bigger and more exciting. You’re hearing this for the first time tonight, but for us, it’s a dream that’s becoming a reality. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”


The Westphal Organization engaged Sweet to guide the McGregor Historical Society through the process. As executive director of the Iowa Museum Association, Sweet helps build strong museums in Iowa by providing professional development, building a strong network of museum professionals across the state and by advocating for Iowa’s museum industry. Her goal was to help the McGregor Historical Society grow as an organization while supporting the goals of the new McGregor community master plan. 


“My role is to be a consultant and a connector, connecting the city and board to information and experts for the benefit of the project,” Sweet explained. “Together, with two of my board members, I led the McGregor Historical Society through a visioning process which enabled them to envision a new future. Participants discussed how they could serve the community and its master plan and yet still fulfill their mission and attract visitors to McGregor. Ultimately, the group focused on the river and Great River Road as the forces that led to the establishment and growth of McGregor.”


Wild said the Great River Road Discovery Center will serve as a gateway to the Ports of Discovery communities of Marquette and McGregor and a key destination along the Great River Road. It will be an essential part of the McGregor community, providing exhibits, programming and experiential learning opportunities and meeting identified community needs. 


“Through the visioning process, we came up with this comprehensive reason to exist. That includes education, interactive exhibits and to make it fun—a discovery center, not just a place where dusty artifacts are kept and you passively walk through. A place people would really want to bring their kids to, and if you’re an adult, if you love history, you’ll want to come back again and again,” Wild shared.


According to Sweet, the goal is to develop the GRRDC to tell national stories, including the exploration and expansion of the United States, the effect of expansion on Native populations, the development of transportation systems and communities along the Great River Road—with a particular emphasis on McGregor and the area surrounding it—and the story of the environmental movement that was established in McGregor and its role in saving a sacred Native site that became Effigy Mounds.


Meeting attendees saw these ideas borne out through conceptual designs shared publicly for the first time last week. Design firm Edwards Creative developed the renderings over a four-month process, through regular meetings with museum representatives, Sweet and McGregor deputy city clerk/economic development lead Brandi Crozier.


Edwards Creative was brought on board to create a space that is a destination for travelers and tourists, a place for school groups to learn and for families to enjoy, said director of museum services Tim Wren.


“We were tasked with bringing the history of this area to life through not only objects from the collection, but large format video presentations, graphics, displays, tactile, hands-on interactives, digital interactives, custom builds,” he detailed. “Everything centered around five main themes: the river and the road, exploration and encounter, settlement and transportation, the environment and the river and personal McGregor stories.”


Using the Great River Road as the organizing principle will provide the museum with opportunities for partnerships with other communities, museums and recreational and cultural organizations from Keokuk to Lansing, and perhaps up and down the Great River Road, Sweet said. 


Wild stressed the GRRDC will not replicate other area attractions, but enhance and expand their stories.


“We plan on uniquely telling the story of our rich history, the impact McGregor had,” he said. “By becoming a destination stop, the Great River Road Discovery Center will attract more visitors to the area. This is why it’s good news for all of us. It will attract not just visitors who like history, but the Great River Road Scenic Byway goes from Louisiana to Canada and people are going to look on the map and say, ‘Hey, I want come here.’ When they come here, they will shop in the stores, look for lodging, they might want to go to the Wetlands Centre or Depot Museum. The more there is for someone to experience in an area, the more likely they will come and more likely they will return. We’re excited to spearhead that.”


Starting last week, the public was invited to complete a survey to help guide the project forward. A link can be found on the McGregor Historical Museum and city of McGregor Facebook pages and city of McGregor website. 


“We want to understand what you want out of the Great River Road Discovery Center,” said Christina Dollhausen, historical society board member and chair of the marketing committee.


Site selection will follow. Although it was once a goal to expand the museum into the Sullivan Opera House building, other options are also being considered, stated Dollhausen. 


“While this building is still available, there are significant pros and cons to weigh out. What we do know is we’ll be analyzing potential sites here in the community along the Great River Road and will have professionals involved in the process. We also know that, if the Sullivan isn’t selected to be the Great River Road Discovery Center, the Westphals are committed to working with professionals to determine its re-use purposes,” she said. 


Jeff Westphal further elaborated. 


“The vision will guide us to use these historic resources in the best way for the entire community. We haven’t done that work yet. The opera house might be the Great River Road Discovery Center, the expanded museum it was assumed to be, or it might better serve in another way because of the nature of the size of the building and location. Maybe the hotel was meant to be a part of the broader Discovery Center experience that the whole town is a part of. We shouldn’t close our minds to what could creatively emerge from the process and all your contributions and feedback,” he said.


In the meantime, the Westphals plan to clean and shore up the two buildings so they will be better prepared for potential uses.


“Then, when we have the big vision and start doing architectural planning, we know what we’ve got to work with,” Westphal said. 


No details were provided on other potential sites for the GRRDC.


“At this time, we’re considering pretty much any site along the Great River Road. We would certainly like to see it stay here in McGregor, so that is where our highest interest is,” Crozier stated.


Once a site has been selected, Dollhausen said a feasibility study will be conducted to determine the viability of the project. The study will show the likelihood of not only being able to fund the cost of building the museum but the ability to sustain it. The city and museum will also work to secure grants and other funding mechanisms to offset the cost, which will be part of a capital campaign. Ground breaking and construction is likely a couple years out, she added. 


Dollhausen invited the public to follow a revamped museum website, social media and newsletters for updates. Additional public meetings will also be held.


By working with industry professionals and growing the historical society board to include members with extensive financial, governance, marketing and other related backgrounds, Wild is confident the GRRDC project is on good footing.


“We all know about disappointment. We’ve heard things in a community: ‘Oh, we’re going to have this, we’re going to have that.’ And then it falls through. I really feel like, with the team the Westphal Organization put together working with us, that this dream is going to happen,” Wild said.


Board member Corky Bickel concluded the meeting by asking attendees to commit to a self-fulfilling prophecy. 


“If the project is right, it will happen. If the vision is right, it will happen. The only inhibiting factor we have is our own limitation of vision,” he reflected. “We’ve got to, as a community and individuals, engage in visioning and believe in that self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s going to take all of us. We’re all going to have to engage in talent, by offering our ideas, in time and, to the extent we can, financially, to make the vision a reality.”

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