October 28, 2009

Remembering the Imaginarium

Last week's collapse of the Bank of Elmwood brought some attention back to the Imaginarium, the ill-fated children's museum planned for Downtown Racine.

The $4.6 million project planned for the former Zahn's department store fell apart in 2001 after six years of work. Children raised over 2 million pennies for the museum.

Bukacek Construction stopped work on the museum in 2000 after the Imaginarium board ran out of money. But the board countered that Bukacek was paid for more work than it actually did.

The project got further complicated when Tony Gazzana left after leading fundraising efforts for the museum. Gazzana was paid $32,000 after helping to raise $417,000. Bukaceck claimed the museum should have paid for construction before it paid Gazzana.

The project wound up in court, and by 2003, Bank of Elmwood was seeking a new buyer for the building.

We never really got a full explanation of why the Imaginarium, which was so full of promise dating back to 1995, collapsed.

Here's a summary of JT articles on the children's museum that never was:

1995 - Plans announced for a children's museum in the former Zahn's Department store on Monument Square.

1996 - Go-cart races eyed as Imaginarium fundraiser.

1996 - Imaginarium board lays out long-term plan.

1996 - Rally for Imaginarium at Regency Mall.

1997 - Penny drive underway.

1997 - Imaginarium penny drive hits 1 million.

1997 - Bukaceck under contract for museum.

2000 - Renewed fundraising campaign launched.

2000 - Construction put on hold.

2000 - Bukacek remains intent on building Imaginarium.

2000 - Imaginarium works on a new plan.

2000 - YouthALIVE drives Imaginarium.

2001 - Imaginarium board, Bukacek fight over money.

2001 - Museum seeks new developer.

2001 - Gazzana paid $32,000 for Imaginarium work.

2001 - Imaginarium claims Bukacek was overpaid.

2001 - Museum ends up in court.

2003 - Bank of Elmwood seeks new buyer for Zahn's building.


  1. I have often wondered why S.C. Johnson (a multi billion dollar company), claiming to be a family oriantated company could build their muti-millon dollar world headquaters within a stones through of the proposed "Childrens" Imaginarium and yet not do whatever it takes (finacially)to see to it that the project was completed....

    1. They do enough for this city. Why is financial mismanagement by another organization their problem to fix?

  2. Another epic Dickert failure. Seriously, is there any project that this guy was involved in prior to being mayor that was successful? Point Blue? River Bend?

  3. Gazzana an interesting man (not) IMHO after I heard about the forging of documents thought someone should look it to that. After so long thinking not but like a Phoenix one never knows

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  5. Frankly, experience with the Imaginarium soured scads of youngsters on donating their pathetic pennies to so-called community projects. I know one gal whose folks--thinking they were teaching her to contribute to good causes--made her give ten bucks she'd just received as a birthday present to the damned Imaginarium. Today, as an adult, she donates as little as possible to such farces.

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  8. Oh Mr Angry - your rididulus rants are really growing old. Why don't you make up some new names for people. My new name for you would be "Do Nothing but bitch, Lazy Ass".

  9. Admiral on Deck10/28/2009 1:28 PM

    Why not make the first floor into a theater and the upper levels into apartments for low income people?

  10. The building is a wreck, that's why the building has not been sold nor ever will. The best plan of action would be to demolish the building and offer the land plot for sale. At this point in time the cost to renovate and clean the facility is prohibitive.

    The Johnson Fund provided grant funds to get the Imaginarium project running, but the initial fund raising plan went nowhere based on the attendance figures. For example the numbers of attendance out stripped those of the Betty Brinn Museum in Milwaukee. Of course there was an entrance fee factored for school children that most likely would never be collected.

    No one bought into the business plan, thus no one contributed the funds to renovate the facility. The only hope was the thought to secure a McDonald's restaurant that would help to offset the facility costs.

  11. We all know which corporate crime clan would have saved the Imaginarium if it had been an art museum which one of its women could have used as a tax shelter. Although the people of Racine are poor, they aren't stupid. They're all-too-aware of an elitist tribe's little scams which benefit "The Family" exclusively.

  12. I think that the people who did the Imaginarium attendance estimates have moved on and are helping with plans for KRM.

  13. Admiral on Deck:
    Yes, let's put low-income people downtown so that no one wants to shop/eat/live there either. Great idea! Let's just trash all of Racine in the name of social justice.

  14. Urban Pioneer10/28/2009 4:42 PM

    I am proud to say I called this stupid from the beginning. I knew it wouldn't work..and we should be thankful we never wasted all the money to finish it.. Today it would be nothing but an empty shell or barely clinging to life Folly begging for money from the citizen's or the taxpayers.

    I do hope some business will open in the Zahn's building..I have one in mind..but not the resources right now to fund it. Maybe in a year or 2. But I urge everyone to continue to support your downtown businesses, their success will lure others to try new and better businesses. If we can elect Council-persons who are pro-business it would also help greatly!

  15. The only things that I remember about the Imaginarium is a contractor getting rich from kids that collected pennies to fund their dream. Nice memories I have! Why not rip off the kids, it teaches them what the rest of their life will be like.

  16. How "rich" did the contractor get? You make it sound as though the contractor had no expenses. Please provide details.

  17. The Imaginarium? It was like everything else in this evil little town: just another scam to make the rich even richer than they already were and are.

  18. I think it should be torn down. Done. It's too far gone. It could be used as perhaps a vendor's square where people could sell their hot dogs, etc etc and pay a fee for same.

    Right now it will never amount to anything. Unsafe.

  19. Dear 7:58 A.M., Amen! When we turn it into a vendors' venue, let's have lots of taco and hotdog wagons there so the almighty Waxies may see how the rest of us live.

  20. Barbara Pavlik Riegelman10/29/2009 8:31 AM

    My mother was a long time and very proud employee of Zahns up until it closed. Upon her death in 1998, we felt she would have loved to see children enjoying the activities in a place she so enjoyed. We requested donations to the Imaginarium in her memory. I was a little skeptical, as there were so many needs in our community that were already established that she also enjoyed. Today, I am cynical, and feel so badly that that money the people chose to donate was not directed in a manner more well intended.

  21. Ditto. Back in the forties, my Mom worked at Zahn's as a commercial artist designing ads and displays. She would have been sad to witness what happened to the business and the building.

  22. The bottom line is the fact that an excessively wealthy family wanted an artsy-craftsy ego monument instead of a children's museum adjacent to its corporate headquarters. Because recherche and avant garde art objects are status symbols while children's facilities generally lack prestige, the clan in question imposed an elitist institution with scant appeal to rank-and-file residents on the blue collar populace of a moribund and utterly corrupt company town. (None of the above should be construed as an attack on the good people who administer and staff a certain institution. To their eternal credit, they're trying to render the place less-snooty and more attractive to a wide cross section of the community.)

  23. Way to go! Perhaps if the arty establishment were to offer low-cost activities for our kids, it could provide them with some of the experiences they could have enjoyed if the Imaginarium had opened as originally planned.

  24. Properly managed, this situation could become a textbook example of win-win urban planning. Also, as any educator will tell you, exposing kids to the arts at an early age well-nigh guarantees that they'll appreciate and support them throughout their lives.

  25. Is the building really in bad shape? Shouldn't the contractor or planner be held accountable? Hopefully the new owners of the building pursue justice.

    If we as a community could put the Kids Cove playground there then we certainly could move little by little to make the museum for the children a reality.

    Lets stop fighting with each other and work together.