Shawnee & Lenexa

Amid uncertainty, Johnson County Museum finds some good news

Uncertainty flickered briefly this month about a new home for the Johnson County Museum in the former King Louie bowling alley, but there was also a bright spot. The museum recently learned that it has been voted one of the top five favorite museums by visitors from outside the Kansas City area.

The county museum is a finalist for the Visitors’ Choice award for favorite museum, given each year by the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association.

“This is the first time we’ve been in the running for this award, so obviously we’re very excited about it,” said museum director Mindi Love.

The museum is a finalist along with the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, the National World War I Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Toy and Miniature Museum. Online voting continues through Thursday, after which the winners are announced.

“We’re thrilled just to be in the top five,” Love said.

The association solicits votes through a survey of visitors, counting only votes that come from outside the five-county area. The awards are given in an array of 50 categories ranging from favorite restaurants, to favorite shopping centers and sports teams.

If the county museum wins, it will make good promotional material for coming years, Love said.

That much is certain. But there are many more questions about what lies ahead for the museum.

The museum’s current location, a building more than 80 years old at 6305 Lackman Road in Shawnee, has had a leaky basement and groundwater problems for years. But that’s not the only reason officials want to move, said Love. The floor plan of the building doesn’t make effective use of the space for the items that need to be exhibited, including ongoing exhibit “Seeking the Good Life” and Kidscape.

When the county bought the King Louie building in late 2011 for $1.95 million, there was a proposal for a larger scale museum of suburbia that would be a national draw. However that plan, which could have cost as much as $28 million, was controversial.

Commissioners backed away from that idea, but continued with a plan to renovate the King Louie site, at 8788 Metcalf Ave., into space for the current museum, early voting and the county Enterprise Center, among other uses.

That, too, became an issue during discussion of this year’s county budget. Commissioners are weighing whether to replace the current courthouse. During budget deliberations, they debated whether to walk away from the King Louie renovation and put the money into courthouse construction instead.

A few commissioners have said the county should look into other ideas for the museum, such as putting displays in the libraries. In the end, they voted to stay the course on the King Louie.

Love said the museum would ask for the $5 million for the new space in the next year or two, but it’s unlikely the museum will relocate into the former bowling alley and ice rink before 2017. The move will not be an expansion of the museum’s 20,000 square feet, but the layout will be more effective, she said. “The new location will look and feel different,” she said.

“Seeking the Good Life” will be redone, and the museum will keep Kidscape because it has been popular, she said.

Moving into library space has not been feasible, she said, because no libraries have had enough unused space. “We’ve had many conversations with libraries over the years about space sharing,” she said.

The museum does put smaller exhibits in libraries, though.

“When the opportunity arises, we certainly have worked with them,” she said.

“Right now we are focused on getting to the new facility,” said Love.