For years Explore & More Children's Museum has been hoping to have a large downtown space that would allow it to attract families from throughout the region.
Wednesday, that dream took a big step toward becoming a reality as the East Aurora-based museum was selected to operate a museum on the site of the former Memorial Auditorium.
Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. picked Explore & More over two competing proposals for what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar facility opening by Memorial Day 2016.
"I think this is a great opportunity for people in Western New York to shape a museum. We really do think community involvement is key," said Barbara Park Leggett, the museum's executive director. "We were cautiously optimistic. The process had to happen."
Even though Explore & More had been considered the front-runner, Leggett was thrilled by Wednesday's news.
"We felt we had the most experience in children's programming of anyone who applied," she said in an interview. "We know that what we're creating is quality, and that our chances were good. Buffalo is revitalizing and we're putting a greater emphasis on children and families. This will entertain and educate families."
Explore & More, the region's only museum designed for children, has more than 800 members and serves about 50,000 people each year through on- and off-site programming.
The Canalside museum is expected to draw at least 130,000 visitors annually, while offering indoor and outdoor learning experiences for children of all ages.
Explore & More's proposal calls for a 25,000-square-foot museum with a centerpiece exhibit highlighting the Erie Canal. Other major exhibits would be Windows on Western New York; Building Curiosity; Buffalo Around the World and In Our Neighborhoods; Food for Thought; Make It Go!; and Musical Feast.
Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. is expected to kick in between $5 million and $8 million toward the core and shell of a building -- the outside walls, floors, staircases and elevators.
Explore & More's share of the tab for the project could run to $6 million, covering the rest of the structure, such as inside walls, bathrooms, carpeting and the exhibits.
The preliminary annual operating budget is estimated at $1.4 million, with about 55 to 60 percent of that figure derived from admissions, membership and gift shop sales.
"That's a very preliminary estimate. The master plan will really flesh that out," Leggett said.
The other proposals competing with Explore & More were from Great Lakes Experience, a nonprofit community outreach arm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, and the Buffalo Fire Historical Society, which runs the Buffalo Fire Museum.
Maureen Hurley, chairwoman of Erie Canal Harbor's Cultural Advisory Group, said, "ECHDC made a commitment to present the best mix of cultural offerings at Canalside, and I am confident that a children's experience under the guidance of Explore & More will fulfill our mission to bring the story of Buffalo to a wide audience of children and adults.
With a nearly 20-year history, Explore & More has long had the urge to expand and create a downtown presence. Its current home in 6,700 square feet of space in an office park-like setting in East Aurora will continue while museum staff simultaneously begin work on a master plan and capital campaign to build the downtown facility.
"This isn't an instant move. Meanwhile, we'll still operate out of our space and be working on building a new museum at the same time," Leggett said. "In our minds, the way to ensure sustainability is to get community involvement in this development process. We want this museum to be not just our vision, but what everyone wants."
The state is expected to sign the contract for the Explore & More proposal in the coming weeks. Then the museum this summer must raise at least $100,000 for its master plan, which will look at many aspects of the proposed program, as well as cost and sustainability.
Founded as a grassroots organization by a group of parents, educators and designers, Explore & More first opened in the basement of East Aurora's Main Street School in 1994 and served 1,500 people in 500 square feet of space. It now leases space at 300 Gleed Ave., a building owned by the Town of Aurora, but is not on a bus route, and it can be tricky to find off East Aurora's Main Street.
The museum has been looking for a new home for quite some time.
It is a four-time recipient of Federal Institute of Museum & Library Services grants and has won national and local awards.
Thoughts of a downtown children's museum have been in the works for years. The administration of late Mayor James Griffin talked about it in the 1980s, and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello discussed putting one in the Aud building before it was torn down, but nothing materialized.