DOWAGIAC -- Changes are coming to the Museum at Southwestern Michigan College. The museum will close its doors at its current location on the SMC Dowagiac campus in early July and then reopen next spring in downtown Dowagiac with a new name.
Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons said the museum will now be called the Southwest Michigan Museum and will be housed in the former Behnke paint store building on West Railroad near Division Street in downtown Dowagiac.
The museum is set to close on the SMC Dowagiac campus on Friday and reopen in downtown Dowagiac next spring, perhaps during the Dogwood Festival.
SMC President David Mathews said the move came about both because the museum itself was running out of room and the college needed the space for other purposes. He said the museum area, which was built onto the Lyons Building in 1993, will house the SMC Bookstore this coming winter. Some space will still be set aside for storage of museum artifacts.
"It was a convergence of a bunch of different things," he said. "We wanted to expand college services, expand the museum and reduce costs. This allows us to do all three. ... Right now, the museum can only display a fraction of the holdings and there have been plans to acquire more. The museum has been a great asset for the college but it doesn't specifically serve students."
Financially, the college will be saving nearly $100,000 per year with the move. It now spends $170,000 per year on museum salaries and has pledged to pay only $75,000 annually to cover the salary of museum director Steve Arseneau. Two part-time employees will lose their jobs.
The space currently occupied by the museum will house the SMC Bookstore starting in January. The current bookstore area in the College Services Building will be renovated to install a "one-stop shopping" service area for students so they can get services from financial aid and admissions to testing and academic advising in one place, Mathews said.
"We wanted to have world class service like a really high-end retail business where one person can answer your questions," he said. "... We're always surveying students and listening to see what they need. They said they have to go from one office to another too much."
SMC and the city of Dowagiac will split the cost of renovating the old Behnke building on West Railroad Street. The city acquired the building in early June after agreeing to pay the Behnke family $17,000 to cover their expenses from the last few years. The family then donated the building to the city.
While the museum will have more space in its new home, which has three floors, it will be more dependent on grants and volunteers. Lyons and Mathews said the museum advisory committee will remain in place and will be asked to step up and take on more responsibilities. They said they expect fundraising campaigns to start to support the museum at its new home.
Lyons said the museum move came about "quite suddenly" when Mathews approached him about the college's plans in April and told him the college was "getting out of the museum business."
He said he and other city officials wanted to keep the museum in the Dowagiac area since many of the exhibits are about Dowagiac people and companies such as the Round Oak Stove and thought about the Behnke building. They hope eventually to get grants to do landscaping around the museum and the railroad in that area.
Arseneau said that museum programs that people have come to know and expect will continue, from the education programs that reach out to area schools to the museum talks that bring people in to talk about interesting history topics.
He said he's looking forward to the move to a site that is more centrally located and will likely bring in more foot traffic. "It will also be a positive for the neighborhood there and bring some revitalization to that side of Division Street," he said.