With construction of the new $27 million Explore & More Children's Museum underway at Canalside, city and state leaders are betting it will serve as a major catalyst for more investment and development along the waterfront.
Public and private-sector officials said Wednesday they expect the new four-story museum to be a big attraction that will help lure more restaurants and retail stores to Canalside, followed by apartments and even office tenants.
"This project is going to be game-changing for our region, both in the resources it provides to children and families and in the asset it will surely become as a tourist destination right here at Canalside," said David McNamara, a partner at law firm Phillips Lytle and chairman of the Explore & More capital campaign. "Across the country, children's museums are widely regarded as vital components of healthy cities that attract new businesses and new families. To be able to do this while making a significant impact on the lives of Buffalo’s children is truly remarkable."
In particular, officials pointed to potential for more families and young children at Canalside, citing the estimated 250,000 additional guests that are expected to visit the museum each year.
That's on top of the 1.5 million visitors the waterfront area already gets, according to state estimates, as well as the continued lure of sporting and entertainment events at HarborCenter and the KeyBank Center.
"This is not just a children's museum. This will be a community anchor," said Robert Gioia, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency charged with overseeing waterfront development in Buffalo. "This museum will be an economic engine for the continued growth of our cultural and heritage activities."
Citing Pittsburgh and Cleveland as examples, he noted that 35 percent of children's museums nationwide are "flagships for downtown revitalizations," while 45 percent collaborate with HeadStart programs as education partners.
On Wednesday, government officials and private-sector leaders gathered on a gravel-and-grass-covered patch of land at Canalside to mark a major milestone in the multi-year effort to move the region's children's museum from East Aurora to the waterfront. With a group of young children in front, wearing plastic yellow hard hats and caution vests, the dignitaries young and old plunged shovels into a pile of dirt to kick off the start of construction.
"If you don't feel the excitement I do, then you may not have a pulse," said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who joined Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and other officials for the groundbreaking.
State officials estimate that Explore & More visitors will spend about $4.9 million per year in the immediate vicinity, in addition to museum admission.
"We hope that the Children's Museum inspires all kinds of tourism but also all kinds of families who are going to come down here just to check us out and see how beautiful this place is," said Douglas Love, Explore & More CEO.
Already, the state waterfront agency is flooded with inquiries about future projects and has no shortage of ideas. Next year, a new carousel will be operating less than a block from the museum site, and Gioia said officials are considering ideas for some kind of a permanent venue for small concerts now that larger performances have moved to the Outer Harbor.
Support services, such as restrooms, are also planned. Cars will be returning to lower Main Street under a separate project. And mixed-use buildings are next on the horizon, with first-floor commercial, retail or administrative space and apartments upstairs. Benderson Development Co. is already planning such a building, potentially with a high-end restaurant, at the corner of Washington and Scott streets.
"There's no reason why we can't continue to have that growth," Gioia said. "What you'll see is a continued expansion of fun things to do for the entire family year-round. Give us another year, and you'll see lots of excitement."
Explore & More, which has been operating for 23 years, is currently located in a crammed 5,000-square-foot space at 300 Gleed Ave. in East Aurora. Officials have pursued a plan to move to Canalside for more than seven years, with fits and starts along the way.
Museum officials have raised $19 million so far, and McNamara said several additional donations will be announced soon. "We still have some fundraising to do, but the prospects are solid and we have every confidence we'll get there," he said.
The new, four-story museum is planned near the intersection of Marine Drive and Lloyd Street. Expected to open in late 2018, it will feature seven educational play zones designed to tell the story of Buffalo with hands-on exhibits and experiences. It will employ about 36 people.
"This has been the missing link," Hochul said. "Buffalo has been the only city of its size not to have a children's museum, so we're a little late coming to the game, despite the best efforts of a lot of people… This is going to bring a new opportunity that we've never even envisioned before."
ECHDC is investing $9 million, while New York Power Authority is providing $1.75 million. The city's waterfront development agency in February approved the final design for the museum, clearing the way for construction to begin this week.
The project at 130 Main, led by LeChase Construction of Rochester, calls for a 43,000-square-foot building made of brick, limestone, metal, granite and glass, with the Lake Street bridge bringing schoolchildren directly inside the building. The building will be designed to look like it was originally constructed a century ago and then renovated over time.
"This is huge for the city of Buffalo. This is going to be an amazing draw to Canalside and to the waterfront," Brown said.
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