GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Hands On! children’s museum was beloved when Andy Marquart became its new CEO in 2013 — but a bit like a well-worn stuffed animal is beloved.

Loved for its ark full of stuffed animals (real ones), its “grocery store” and its slide into a “coal mine,” the downtown Johnson City fixture also featured decaying infrastructure, inadequate parking and a paucity of high-quality exhibits.

Fast forward nine years and Marquart is leaving a facility with at least twice the floor space and a raft of newer exhibits, a like-new building that the museum doesn’t even pay for and a unique partnership with East Tennessee State University’s Gray Fossil Site.

Leaving, nonetheless, is what the Missouri native is doing, headed to Columbia, S.C. to take the reins at EdVenture Children’s Museum. His last day at Hands On! is June 17.

Andy Marquart is leaving as Hands On! Discovery Center’s CEO after nine years at the helm. He will become director of EdVenture, a children’s museum in Columbia, S.C. (WJHL Photo)

“He’s been such a pleasure to work with and he’s done so many wonderful things for the museum, he’s just going to be really missed,” Hands On! Board Chair Helen Harmon said Tuesday. “We’re really happy for him at the same time.”

Marquart spoke to News Channel 11 Tuesday and reflected on his tenure at what is now called Hands On! Discovery Center Tuesday, shortly after EdVenture made the choice of its new director public.

The museum’s board of directors had discussed various plans for a new building in the years preceding Marquart’s arrival, but finances made it a difficult lift.

“There was some work that needed to be done,” Marquart said of the museum when he arrived. Much of that was down to what he called “crumbling infrastructure” that left any CEO with hands somewhat tied. Donor largesse had to address acute needs that operating revenue couldn’t cover and curtailed the ability to enhance what Marquart called “informal learning” that is key to successful museums.

Visitors enjoy an interactive play area at Hands On! Discovery Center in Gray, Tenn. (WJHL Photo)

“We couldn’t take all those (donor) dollars and fund an exhibit or a program, we had to fund a new HVAC system or another leak in the building or something else and that really interferes with your ability to grow your mission and impact,” Marquart said.

But within a couple years of his arrival, Marquart began discussions with ETSU about an innovative proposal: marry Hands On’s strengths and potential with the world-renowned fossil site’s research and attractiveness to the curious of all ages.

Marquart said some of the challenges when he arrived were financial, some just required blood, sweat and tears, but all were daunting without the potential game-changing prospect of a Hands On!-ETSU partnership.

“There’s a lot of things that go into solving those problems and once we made the decision to relocate to the Gray Fossil Site that allowed us to leverage donor funds to invest in all of those other gaps I was mentioning earlier in informal learning and what we wanted to do from an impact perspective,” he said.

After a multi-year process, Hands On! moved into the fossil site for good in 2018. Marquart said the move has catapulted the museum forward on about every level imaginable.

“Not only is the museum in a sound financial space and will continue to be but also our programmatic efforts have grown exponentially,” he said.

Hands On! boasts one of the state’s top educational outreach programs, reaching kids as far afield as Southeast Kentucky and Western North Carolina. He said without the world class paleontological site, even a partnership that saved money wouldn’t be as impactful.

He said a key to offering a successful museum or attraction is having something no one else has. “There are specimens and findings here that aren’t found anywhere else in the world, and that makes it really special.

“When you bring an informal learning and family education component like Hands On and plant it here in the middle of a unique site like the Gray Fossil Site, then you’ve reached a potential that others could only dream of.”

That’s gotten lots of attention at museum conferences and impressed professionals who visit for museum accreditation purposes. Marquart said they mention having seen similar models but nothing exactly like the Hands On!-ETSU partnership.

“I think the reason why is because we didn’t carbon copy anything and try to put it in here,” he said. “We did what’s best for ETSU, for the Center for Excellence in Paleontology and for Hands On! Discovery Center … and that’s why it’s worked out so well.”

Now Marquart, who has also been chairman of the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau and led the board of the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association, said it’s time for someone to take Hands On! to the next level. He said he doesn’t believe the museum has reached its fullest potential and needs someone “who will come in with ideas that I haven’t thought of and no one else has thought of.”

Marquart praised the other members of Hands On!’s leadership team. Vice President of Marketing and Operations Kristine Carter and VP of Education and Community Engagement Heather Watson will split interim leadership duties as a board committee conducts a national search.

He said the supportive board and strong team will help give his successor time to make their own mark.

“They’ll be able to absorb the environment before turning something on its head or saying ‘we want to go do this,'” Marquart said. “So really just from an operational perspective and from everything else the museum is so stable that it’s really going to allow a long runway for the next director to have some success.”

Harmon said the board is hopeful.

“We’re hoping to find somebody who’s going to continue and expand upon a lot of the great work Andy’s done.”