ROCKINGHAM, N.C. Neal Cadieu knows Rockingham. He s the former publisher of the Richmond County Daily Journal, and co-chair of the project that brought Discovery Place KIDS to town. The museum opens to the public Saturday at the corner of East Washington and North Lawrence Streets.

Will it transform downtown Rockingham?

That s a good question, he said. Some people think it s going to be a revolution. I just don t see it.

Downtown Rockingham is probably never going to be the retail center it used to be, Cadieu says. Fifty years ago, it was the Star City of the Sandhills. There were stores open up and down Lee Street. Leon Levine, the one who made Family Dollar into a juggernaut, got his start at the family store on Harrington Square.

The big box stores killed off the smaller stores downtown. So did the internet. There s a Walmart and a Lowe s out on Old 74, a long strip with fast food and car repair shops and gas stations and much bigger parking lots that runs between Rockingham and Hamlet. If you want to shop, go there.

That s not to say downtown is dead.

It s not what it used to be, but it has a lot going for it still, says Cadieu. And Discovery Place KIDS is not just an effort to make downtown Rockingham alive again. It s bigger than that. It s about trying to make the Sandhills a better place to live.

Rockingham is a two-hour drive from Charlotte, about halfway between the Queen City and the coast on Highway 74. And the people who live around there, in Laurinburg, Southern Pines, Chesterfield, Wadesboro and the places in-between are looking for a few things:

  • Something to do
  • Something close
  • Something affordable

Enter Discovery Place KIDS, an idea conceived about five years ago when Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte was looking to expand outside of Mecklenburg County. They wanted to go to a place where museums weren t already plentiful.

So they looked at the Sandhills.

Cadieu and Russell Bennett were in charge of raising the money. They raised $13 million. The biggest chunks of money came from the Cole Foundation and the Richmond Community Foundation, which gave $3.3 million apiece. The Levine Foundation, founded by Leon and Sandra Levine, gave $2 million.

The museum bought the old McKenzie Furniture building and renovated it into a 20,000 square foot, two-floor museum. Inside, there s a giant walk-through heart. There s a science lab. There s a place for kids to learn how to farm and cook. It s based on the peach orchards that surround the city. And of course, there s a build-your-own-racetrack and speed shop based on the nearby Rockingham Speedway.

Everything is based on a theme of I can. There are different names for different areas. I can imagine. I can wonder why. I can be anything. Kids don t tell you what they can t do, says Discovery Place CEO John Mackay. They always tell you what they can do.

So can the community, a county, and a region support this museum?

Yes, says Mackay. It s a risk, and sure, people think it might not work.

People said that about Orlando before the mouse came, he says, referring to Disney World.

For one thing, people are willing to drive. In the Sandhills, we can drive 35-40 miles easily, said Cadieu. Surveys showed Discovery Place that people would drive that far to come to Rockingham. It s not the same in bigger cities, where congestion and traffic make longer trips harder.

Going 35 to 40 miles in Charlotte, you re talking about half a day, Cadieu added.

The other consideration was money. It costs a lot for people to drive to Charlotte to visit a museum.

This is a community with a tremendous amount of pride, said Mackay. But there s [been] a lot of change. Rockingham used to be a booming textile town. Now, Richmond County has a 12 percent unemployment rate. Next door, in Scotland County, more than 15 percent are out of work. It won t be hard to find people who need help paying to get in, Cadieu says.

The cost of admission at Discovery Place KIDS in Rockingham is $8, whether you re a kid or an adult. But if you can t afford it, the museum s working with groups in town to allow some families to visit for free. And it also makes it more affordable as a destination for field trips.

We have 20 school bus loads already scheduled for spring of this year, Cadieu said.

(There won t be a big employment bump from Discovery Place KIDS itself; there are a dozen employees, three of them are full time, and most of the accounting and exhibit work will be done at the main office in Charlotte.)

Cadieu said the stores may be gone, but there s a different plan for downtown Rockingham, and it all comes back to livability. The city bought a building across the street from Discovery Place KIDS with the intent to turn it into apartments. There are a lot of two story buildings downtown, and those second stories aren t all being used. Cadieu says they re perfect for couples, young or old, who don t need a lot of space. He says downtown is safe, walkable and well lit. Making downtown livable will make it more shoppable, eventually.

If that happens, and we re talking many years here, says Cadieu, there would be the need for boutiques and specialty shops.

When Discovery Place KIDS opens Saturday morning, it ll be one more thing that makes the Sandhills a better place to live, Cadieu argued. It s a point of pride, he says. And it s a piece of the puzzle.

This started five years ago, he said. It s been a long time in coming.

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