Power Lunch: Day at the Museum

The driving force behind the Please Touch Museum — Nancy Kolb — reflects on retiring after 21 years on the job, how to get stuff done in this city, and why it’s time for women to start running Philadelphia

THAT THE PLEASE Touch Museum has grown into the world-class children’s wonderland it is today is almost entirely thanks to the faith, perseverance and character of its just-retired CEO, Nancy Kolb. Under her aegis, PTM overcame the pressures of its cramped space on 21st Street, then the collapse of Simon Property Group’s Penn’s Landing project where it had planned to relocate, and finally its move to the historic — and breathtaking — Memorial Hall. The whole thing is a case study in visionary leadership, financial savvy, political skillfulness and brazen chutzpah — all of which I got to discuss with Kolb while playing with the many exhibits available for us Philly kids in this amazing facility.

Sam Katz: Whatever possessed you to think you could pull off an $88 million project in a building from 1876 on an island in Fairmount Park? Nobody thought you could do it.

Nancy Kolb: Nobody, including you. The truth is, we never thought about it in its totality. It was a step at a time. Get the lease — no small step. Raise some money. Get a guaranteed construction price. Then more money. But it was never just me. “I” doesn’t work for a project of this magnitude. It took a great board, staff, consultants, and a community that got behind it. People doubted us behind our backs, but they didn’t try to stop us.

SK: I thought you were dead in the water when Penn’s Landing fell apart.

NK: We raised $40 million for Penn’s Landing. PTM had never raised more than $4 million. When the Landing project collapsed, our community profile was in a different place — higher. People felt so bad about what had happened down there that when we went back to Mayor Street for Memorial Hall, he never said “No.” He could have stopped it, but he didn’t.

SK:
What else surprised you?

NK: It took us two and a half years to do a lease. Maybe I was naive, but I never thought it would take that long. Lots of people wanted a say. There were competitors for the site. There was major change going on in the Fairmount Park Commission. Communications within city government weren’t stellar.

SK: Will we ever have a city government that clears away the debris rather than being the debris? Things have progressed a lot, though, for the museum.

NK: Our first year, we had operating income of $8,000. This year it’s $10.5 million.

That the Please Touch Museum has grown into the world-class children’s wonderland it is today is almost entirely thanks to the faith, perseverance and character of its just-retired CEO, Nancy Kolb. Under her aegis, PTM overcame the pressures of its cramped space on 21st Street, then the collapse of Simon Property Group’s Penn’s Landing project where it had planned to relocate, and finally its move to the historic — and breathtaking — Memorial Hall. The whole thing is a case study in visionary leadership, financial savvy, political skillfulness and brazen chutzpah — all of which I got to discuss with Kolb while playing with the many exhibits available for us Philly kids in this amazing facility.

Sam Katz: Whatever possessed you to think you could pull off an $88 million project in a building from 1876 on an island in Fairmount Park? Nobody thought you could do it.

Nancy Kolb: Nobody, including you. The truth is, we never thought about it in its totality. It was a step at a time. Get the lease — no small step. Raise some money. Get a guaranteed construction price. Then more money. But it was never just me. “I” doesn’t work for a project of this magnitude. It took a great board, staff, consultants, and a community that got behind it. People doubted us behind our backs, but they didn’t try to stop us.

SK: I thought you were dead in the water when Penn’s Landing fell apart.

NK: We raised $40 million for Penn’s Landing. PTM had never raised more than $4 million. When the Landing project collapsed, our community profile was in a different place — higher. People felt so bad about what had happened down there that when we went back to Mayor Street for Memorial Hall, he never said “No.” He could have stopped it, but he didn’t.

SK:
What else surprised you?

NK: It took us two and a half years to do a lease. Maybe I was naive, but I never thought it would take that long. Lots of people wanted a say. There were competitors for the site. There was major change going on in the Fairmount Park Commission. Communications within city government weren’t stellar.

SK: Will we ever have a city government that clears away the debris rather than being the debris? Things have progressed a lot, though, for the museum.

NK: Our first year, we had operating income of $8,000. This year it’s $10.5 million.

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