When he has free time, Paul Kortenaar takes his bike and ventures into the El Paso desert. Sometimes he’ll ride from El Paso to Old Mesilla or he’ll hike the Franklin Mountains and meet people along the way.
It is his way of getting to know El Paso and its people.
The Toronto, Canada, native was named the founding executive director of the El Paso children’s museum last September. But he’s kept a low profile.
He’ll oversee the construction of the museum, one of three signature projects from the 2012 quality of life bond initiative.
The proposed budget is now $60 million, significantly more than the nearly $20 million approved by voters in 2012. That’s what it will take to create a truly world-class museum, city and business leaders say. So they are negotiating a new deal, which City Council will consider soon.
“We realize this is a stretch for the city as an entity,” Kortenaar told El Paso Inc. in his first extended interview. “We realize it’s also a stretch for the community. But we know this is a museum the community was asking for us to build.”
The museum will be across the street from the El Paso Convention Center and ballpark in the heart of the El Paso Downtown Arts District, which has about 1.5 million local, national and international visitors each year.
Kortenaar, who has plenty of experience running museums, said he is excited to get the project started, and big donors have already pledged to help.
Those donors and the architecture firm that will design the museum will be revealed if the city approves the new public-private partnership, he said.
In December, three architecture firms introduced their concepts for the children’s museum. Competing for the contract to design the museum are Koning Eizenberg Architecture, based in Santa Monica, Calif.; Snohetta, based in Oslo, Norway; and TEN Arquitectos, based in Mexico City.
The renderings presented by the architecture firms show towering facilities that would transform Downtown El Paso’s skyline. The concepts include a sweeping spiral staircase, green space and gardens, and an airplane perched on top of the museum.
“Everywhere we talk about this museum, we talk about it being a world-class children’s museum,” Kortenaar said. “We’ve received a number of firm pledges that make $20 million feel possible.”
The 2012 quality of life bond originally provided close to $20 million for the children’s museum. In 2016, the El Paso Community Foundation got involved in the project and committed to raising an additional $10 million.
After conducting a number of studies, the Community Foundation proposed a new deal to the city. And now, the city is negotiating with the Community Foundation and Children’s Museum Foundation on a plan that would significantly increase the budget.
According to Kortenaar, under the plan, the city would provide a total of $40 million, doubling the original $20 million approved in 2012, and the foundation would raise another $20 million.
Tracey Jerome, director of the city’s Museum and Cultural Affairs Department, said the deal is a public-private partnership.
“It ensures good stewardship of public dollars,” Jerome said.
Olivia Zepeda, Mayor Dee Margo’s chief of staff, said the mayor had not been briefed on the negotiations. And City Council won’t be briefed until there is a draft agreement, according to Sam Rodriguez, director of the city’s Capital Improvement Department.
Rodriguez said the museum will be on the site where the old Greyhound bus maintenance facility once was, dispelling rumors that the city would acquire a smoke shop located in a red brick building near the site.
“The direction is to proceed with the Greyhound footprint,” he said.
In time, the Children’s Museum Foundation will hire employees to create programming and manage the museum. But for now, it’s just Kortenaar and Karla Salazar, the office manager.
Kortenaar was executive director of Kaleideum North, formerly known as SciWorks, a science museum in North Carolina, before coming to El Paso.
Kortenaar, who wrote his doctoral thesis on museum education, has also been a director of education at the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science and the Ontario Science Centre. He was also a science teacher in Monduli, Tanzania.
He decided to come to El Paso after a headhunter approached him about leading the new children’s museum. He was impressed by the plans.
“To be frank, I came here for an interview, and El Paso was a really attractive place to be. I liked the mountain,” Kortenaar said. “Clearly, I liked the weather. I was excited to come and take this on.”
For more information, go online to epcf.org/childrens_museum.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Aaron Montes at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105, or (915) 777-4154.