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ABB lights up Marbles with $1 million donation

Preston Ellis, 8,  left, and his brother Logan, 10, of Fayetteville build toy cars Thursday, September 28, 2012, at Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh.
Preston Ellis, 8, left, and his brother Logan, 10, of Fayetteville build toy cars Thursday, September 28, 2012, at Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Global engineering firm ABB, which builds electricity grids and designs utility equipment, is donating $1 million to Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh to develop an interactive play area that will let tykes pretend they are operating wind farms and power plants and lighting up neighborhoods.

ABB officials said the donation symbolizes the Triangle’s emerging reputation as a national smart-grid hub known for attracting research, startups and federal grants. ABB, which employs 2,000 people in North Carolina, made the initial payment of $100,000 Wednesday. ABB will also contribute equipment, including motors, towers, cables, transformers and control systems.

The exhibit is scheduled to open to the public in 2014 and shows interest in downtown investment by a global conglomerate that does not have a downtown presence.

“From our selfish standpoint, we’re hoping to develop future engineers,” said Roger Bailey, regional president of ABB’s power products division. “We look at these kids as 20 years from now being our future leaders, our customers and our employees.

The Swiss company employs 145,000 worldwide, including 700 workers at its North American headquarters in Cary and power division headquarters at N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus. ABB this year opened a $10 million “Smart Grid Center of Excellence,” a working high-voltage model for testing equipment and showcasing technology, based at the Centennial Campus.

The “Kid Grid” at Marbles will be a replica that won’t discharge 230,000 volts or require hard hats. It will be built on an outdoor terrace that is currently exposed and vacant but will be enclosed in a glass shell when completed.

The donation, announced Wednesday at the museum’s “Big Idea Forum,” is the single-largest gift in the museum’s five-year history. It will be disbursed over seven years and used to renovate the building and maintain the display.

Officials said the planned power grid simulator display will be first exhibit of its kind in the country.

In exchange for the gift, ABB will get “prominent name brand recognition” through signage and will also be able to use the Marbles facility for meetings and holiday parties, said Marbles president Sally Edwards.

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