Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version. The gift will fund a children's art space in the new library, not a children's theater as first reported.

Nick and Robin Checota pledged $50,000 Wednesday for a children’s art space on the second floor of the new Missoula Public Library, capital campaign co-chairwoman Mae Nan Ellingson told about 30 community leaders during a night-time tour of the partially completed building.

“Right on the way over here, as the result of our last hard-hat tour, I got a call from the Checotas and they pledged $50,000," said Ellingson. "We are just $450,000 away from having the library fully funded.”

The Checotas’ gift puts the private capital campaign goal of $6.25 million within reach, Ellingson said. Missoula County voters contributed another $30 million by approving a bond issue in 2016.

The private fundraising campaign was increased from the original $5 million goal in order to assure the new library-museum complex had sufficient funds to build a fourth floor.

“We are just $450,000 from having the money that we wanted to pay back the interest on the loan,” said Ellingson.

Among other financing, last spring the Missoula Redevelopment Agency donated $200,000 and pledged another $300,000 over four years to help the facility retain the top floor of its new building, as envisioned in the design.

The local $50,000 gift comes on the heels of a bigger, prestigious award on a national scale. 

In a first-ever grant awarded to a city, the National Institutes of Health will provide a $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award for the project, said Holly Truitt, city project director and principal investigator on the grant who spoke during Wednesday's tour.

“As far as the program director knows, Missoula, Montana is the first city in the history to receive the grant, so it’s a really novel approach,” said Truitt. “I think it offers real opportunities for the rest of the city. We have trailblazed this relationship with NIH.”

The unusual grant source will allow the 109,000 square-foot, multi-level library to offer practical, hands-on activities and labs in the form of an early childhood literacy program. Missoula Library Foundation members believe it will spark curiosity and direct younger kids to seek old-fashioned books for answers.

“It’s a really, really evocative, exciting partnership in my opinion between the NIH and the city of Missoula, the University of Montana, the Missoula Public Library and a whole bunch of partnered programs that are nested in those organizations,” said Truitt.

Among the interactive projects children will find are state-of-the-art Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) projects, plus a two-story climber, a DNA sculpture, a First Nations theme and a large mural highlighting women in science, she said.

At a recent community co-creation lab, 66 children and parents helped design the DNA climber, which will extend over the first and second floors of the new building.

“We’re hustling because this building is going up quickly and these are big projects,” Truitt added. “The climber is a big installation. It’s almost like an indoor playground; that’s one of the needs we were having to address. There are no places to play inside when it’s real smoky, so this can be a real hub for children.” 

On the second floor, teens will have a dedicated interdisciplinary research lab that assistant psychology professor Rachel Severson will oversee. The library will house a community lab, too, for adults. 

Karl Olson, tour leader and library foundation director, gave a rundown of the construction site and said “the building has become a teachable moment.”

The five levels break down to:

  • Sixty-three new parking spots will nearly double the number at the old library next door.
  • A Level One marketplace will include a book drop, café, donor wall, used bookstore, plaza, a MakerSpace, Community Lab, Teen Library, gaming area, Media Center, MCAT studio/media arts training and resource center.
  • Level Two will include early childhood programming, Hank and Nancy Harrington Children’s Library, Family First Learning Lab, UM SpectUM Discovery Area and a plethora of “literacies” activities.
  • The Level Three library will slowly double the capacity for the current book collection, offer a special cookbooks collection with a demonstration kitchen, encompass a periodicals lounge and wildlife books center, plus the Tony Veazy Montana Room, home of the historical collections and services.
  • Level Four will be devoted to public engagement and include a Board Room, Reception Area and Cooper’s Space for 250 people.

Despite the popularity and convenience of e-books, old-fashioned paper books will be available in an even bigger way, said Olson.

“Books are not disappearing; they are not going anywhere,” Olson said. “Our public library is a great example of books not disappearing. They’re still in demand. What we’ve seen is a symbiotic relationship. The more digital material they access, the more printed material people want. That’s the reality of our library.” 

Olson touted the unparalleled views of the city and mountains during daylight hours. 

“It will be a bird’s-eye view,” he said.

On Level Three, visitors can use a viewing scope to track the winter elk hanging out on Mount Jumbo – merely one of the jaw-dropping views promised library-goers. Said Ellingson: “The Missoula citizens will have the best views of anybody in the community at this library.”

Before tour-takers dispersed, finding their way down from the expansive fourth floor, Ellingson said space is still available on the donor wall of the library. 

“Just let people know what a wonderful gift this is going to be for the community,” she added.

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.