CHISHOLM — Donna Johnson simply can’t wait to work each day.
She’s fueled by the energy and excitement of what is, but more so what could be.
“I feel very lucky and privileged to be here,” said Johnson while sitting at a conference table at her second floor corner office. Her office walls are covered with large sticky-paper reams filled with “blue sky” ideas. She’s surrounded by what could be.
“Pinch me, pinch me,” she said.
Johnson is the executive director of Minnesota Discovery Center (MDC) in Chisholm. The 660-acre complex showcases northeastern Minnesota's “history and future” and includes a museum, entertainment venues, a research library and park.
MDC opened in 1977 as the Iron Range Interpretive Center and featured 34 exhibits at that time. In 1984, it was renamed in as Ironworld USA and some jokingly called it “Rudy World,” after Gov. Rudy Perpich who was raised in the not-so-distant Carson Lake.
In 2009, Ironworld became Minnesota Discovery Center to appeal to a large audience.
Johnson was the second person hired at MDC in 2010 after it had closed for a stint. She was brought on at the nonprofit as a human resources manager and enjoyed the position for the next seven years. She then left for another opportunity.
“It was a hard decision to leave here,” she recalled. “I am in love with this place. Once you become part of herem you never truly leave.”
The venture Johnson left for didn’t come to fruition. She said she became a bit lost, and unsure of what to do.
She then took a gig as executive director of Borealis Art Guild in Hibbing, another role that allowed her to tap her years of experience and passion for the nonprofit sector. Yet she couldn’t stay away from MDC, so she joined MDC’s board of directors.
“I kept that connection so I didn’t have to completely give up my baby,” she said. “It also allow me to ensure that things were going in the right direction. I had a lot of organizational knowledge of the place, which helped with the transition.”
As 2018 began, MDC was in need of a new leader. On Feb. 1, the board named Johnson interim executive director and appointed her full-time in July.
MDC Chair Rich Puhek said the board was excited to have Johnson return to a leadership role.
“Donna brings a great deal of operational knowledge that has allowed her to step into her new role with a minimal ramp up period,” he said. “… When we review all of the activity that's happening at once, I'm always amazed at what our staff is able to accomplish. We have an exceptional group of people at MDC, and are proud to add Donna to that team.”
The board and prior executive director Lisa Vesel parted on a mutually agreed upon separation agreement, confirmed Puhek. Vesel had led MDC since 2008, and actually hired Johnson.
Puhek acknowledged the challenges and difficulties Vesel faced as she came in following its closure, a time when there was a lot of uncertainty around the organization.
“She built a great team, and was there for quite a length of time,” said Puhek, who was on the team that hired Vesel. “… We were happy with how things happened under her.”
Returning to the ranks as MDC has Johnson beyond excited.
“I had hired almost everyone that’s working here now, had a good rapport with them, had been here through those transition years and know how much we spent those first two years rebranding and fixing our own image in the community,” she said, referring to the cultural, structural and organizational changes of moving from a state-run operation to a nonprofit.
“There were big challenges and then with the closure, there was trust to be rebuilt in the community,” she continued. “Plus the rebranding as MDC, so I came in (as executive director) with a lot of knowledge.”
MDC’s peak workforce tallies around 57 persons, including 10 full-time and about 25 part-time/seasonal. The complex averages 25,000 to 30,000 visitors annually.
“Plus we have a big market that comes here but not physically through our doors — the Research Center,” Johnson noted. “We served people all around the world, and have received requests from every state this year except Rhode Island.”
The center averages 10 requests a day and each time someone uses Ancestry.com, they are tapping into the Research Center’s databases.
“People don’t realize they are really visiting us, and we look at those people as possibly returning later for more information,” she said. “So it balances out.”
As a leader, Johnson aims for inclusivity, engagement and fairness.
“I like even playing fields, and bring everyone to the table,” she said. “It’s my job to remove barriers so others (employees) can do their jobs. I will advocate for them, and advocate for doing what’s right. Having built that trust with them has helped me make this leap.”
Having those relationships established helped smooth the transition.
“I had anticipated it would have been tougher, but once here, it felt like I had just come back home,” she said.
Instead of sitting in the back seat, Johnson now has the charge — and opportunity — to drive.
“I still have a learning curve, but also have to remind myself that as the driver I have that responsibility of taking that next step,” she said.
Johnson wasn’t about to sit back and let it happen. Nor was she about to make drastic moves right away.
“I don’t want to rock the boat and make big changes,” she said. “I just want to make sure the ball keeps rolling forward and opening up to new opportunities and raise the bar of what we can expect of what we can do.”
And that possibly of “what could be” has her pumped.
“This place has so much potential in what we can become,” said Johnson. “We are all about building community partnerships. Everyone has great things happening on the Range, but we tend to do them individually. We’d be more successful if we build those relationships and partner to bring ideas to fruition.”
She rattled off the long list of MDC’s amenities.
“We have so much and it’s under-utilized,” she concluded. “We are trying to make invitations, have people come in and say ‘how can we help you. What can we do together?’ We could all get much further if we’d use each other’s resources, share ideas and build partnerships.”
Johnson glances at the sheets of “blue sky” ideas and beams. They are the “wish lists” of board members and employees. All have a vested interest, and every idea is a possibility.
“First we’ll concentrate on the visitor’s experience by looking at what can be improved, what’s missing, what small things can make a big, quick difference to enhance that experience,” she said. “Then we’ll shift to developing these blue sky ideas into bigger projects, and will gain speed.”
These aims will also include looking at ways of attracting difference demographics and different audiences.
“And listening to the community. See what they want so we can offer more,” said Johnson. “I have an open door (to employees and) to the community too. We can’t be everything to everybody, but if it fits in our mission and we can make it work, then why not. We want to give the community some ownership too.”
A rebirth. A revival.
“We want to be on people's’ minds when they are thinking about things to do,” she added.
MDC has done that by growing exhibits, expanding the museum store and its unique offerings, hosting a band and barbeque night, recently adding dinners with wine pairings, opening a restaurant on certain Saturdays, hosting paleontology endeavours, and working with schools, scouts and budding engineers, among other ongoings.
Oh, and there’s the Redhead bicycling project just ahead too. And have you fed their chickens yet?
Johnson also sees the possibility of bringing back ethnic days, concerts and interpreters.
“The perception we hear in the community a lot is that we get all this funding from the IRRRB which should let us put on such events, but that’s not the case,” said Johnson, explaining that those funds go toward operations and maintenance. The state owns the complex and MDC the nonprofit manages the property.
“In order to host big events, we need money to conduct them, like sponsorships, grants and partnerships,” she continued. “We want to more and bring some things back, but we have to be creative about how we do it. We’re at a growing point, and there are great opportunities here, but this is where those partnerships would come in.”
Johnson is confident her team is backing her, and is just as excited about “what could be.”
“We have wonderful, talented people here, and together we can do anything if we believe in it,” she said. “Providing the staff with an empowering work culture, embracing community partnerships, and fulfilling our mission are my top priorities. It’s been fun to see them engage, embrace the culture and reignite that fire. They can feel, and people can sense it. And hopefully the visitor can too.”
No doubt Johnson will keep the momentum going. Spend a few minutes with her and you’ll sense how contagious her energy is.
“All of these ideas are doable,” she said glancing once again at the sheets. “I’m invite everyone in. Let’s talk partnerships. Let’s get back on the map. I’m very excited to see what our future will bring.”