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Explore & More museum pulled from proposed Canalside building

For more than three years, Canalside planners have been talking about a children’s museum at the corner of Main Street and Marine Drive.

The waterfront museum may still happen, but not where they expected.

The development agency tasked with overseeing the growth of Canalside is going back to the drawing board for the planned Explore & More Children’s Museum.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. abruptly ended negotiations late Tuesday with Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. over construction of the facility on the South Aud Block, because the project as proposed wouldn’t work without public subsidies.

But the agency said it is still looking at ways to bring the museum to that area of Canalside, even as it proceeds with plans to bring other amenities to the original site.

“We consider Explore & More to be an integral part of the future of Canalside, and we anticipate that they will be there, in a very significant way, and we’re going to have exciting news on that front in the very near future,” said Sam Hoyt, the Western New York regional president for the Empire State Development Corp.

Erie Canal Harbor Development, a subsidiary of Empire State Development, originally had called for developers to submit concepts for a 100,000-square-foot mixed-use complex, to be located on the parcel bounded by Main Street, Marine Drive and the historically aligned canals.

In its request for proposals, the agency specified that the three-building project would include the relocated East Aurora museum, a Canalside Information Center, the Erie Canalway Trail Plaza, a three-story restaurant and additional residential, office or retail space. The museum had been recommended for Canalside by a consultant three years ago.

Officials expected significant interest, but in the end, only Ciminelli responded by the Jan. 29 deadline, with a proposal calling for office and retail space, in addition to the museum.

That’s because the terms of the project, as laid out by Erie Canal Harbor Development, were highly specific and restrictive, leaving little wiggle room for developers and little opportunity for profit. About 40 percent of the building would be occupied by the museum, which was to pay just $1 a year in rent, making the project unattractive to take on.

“It’s a challenging site to work with, to be sure, both logistically and financially,” said Ciminelli spokeswoman Anne Duggan. “Our team met several times with the Erie Canal Harbor Development to address some concerns, including those related to design, site constraints and the economics of the deal.”

Hoyt acknowledged that the “very significant” presence of the nonprofit museum, the visitors’ center and other features had deterred most developers and made it financially difficult even for Ciminelli to undertake without “very, very significant public subsidy.”

“We weren’t in the end comfortable with the amount of assistance that would be required to make it work,” he said.

So after months of criticism, including from the developer community, Erie Canal Harbor Development finally ended the process in a short letter to Ciminelli by formally rejecting all proposals that were submitted by the original Jan. 29 deadline. Instead, the agency said, it will review the possibility of re-issuing the request-for-proposals for that site within the next year, without the museum, and urged Ciminelli to respond to it when it comes out.

“We’re disappointed that they have opted to reject our proposal, but will most certainly review any reissued RFP if that is the course that is taken,” Duggan said.

The agency now plans two separate development tracks, one for the mixed-use building and another for the museum, which would still be on the South Aud Block, but on a different parcel than originally envisioned.

“We fully expect to issue another RFP for that parcel, and we are absolutely committed to Explore & More being at Canalside, in the South Aud Block,” said Hoyt, who is also a member of the Erie Canal Harbor Development board.

Hoyt declined to elaborate, but said officials are “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s with the Explore & More team,” and hope to make an announcement within the next week or two.

Jennifer Fee, spokeswoman for the museum, said, “Explore & More is very excited to be moving forward with Erie Canal Harbor Development and putting a children’s museum very soon at Canalside.”

The revised solicitation for the site would likely still call for a mixture of retail, residential, entertainment and restaurant features, but would not contain “a major not-for-profit component to it,” Hoyt said. Office space is also an option, “although we are cognizant of the fact that there’s still a real vacancy issue in downtown Buffalo.”

“We believe it’s a hot parcel,” he said. “Given everything going on at that corner, with HarborCenter, the new Benderson building and the waterfront, it’s going to be a high-demand, highly competitive development when we re-issue an RFP for it.”

The news came just a day after Thomas Dee, president and chief executive officer of Erie Canal Harbor Development, hinted at trouble in the negotiations over the proposed complex, acknowledging that specific details of how the project would look – and even whether the proposed museum would be in it – are still subject to talks. But he also said the agency is still focused on the museum.

“We’re moving forward, and in a couple of weeks, we hope to have a positive announcement,” Dee said Monday, following the agency’s morning board meeting. “We expect to have a children’s museum on the site. That’s what we want to do. We’re working on the edges of that to make it beneficial for everyone.”

Meanwhile, Erie Canal Harbor Development officials are actively touting Canalside’s success so far this summer, citing the turnout at an array of activities, including 25,000 attendees at the May 25 Boardwalk Carnival, 6,000 at the Kiss the Summer Hello concert on May 30, 15,000 at last week’s Matt & Kim concert and an estimated 10,000 for the Pride Festival.

“We had a great start to the summer. We’re hitting it out of the park,” Dee told the agency’s directors Monday, noting that as many as 15 events are scheduled on some days. “There really is a lot of energy,” he said.

He also noted the success of the Queen City Bike Ferry from Canalside to the Outer Harbor, with 5,000 riders through the start of this past weekend, and another 2,402 just since Friday.

“We are thrilled with Buffalo’s huge response to events at Canalside,” Dee said. “We hope that everyone will continue to enjoy this summer.”