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Subsidizing a New Museum at Canalside

Of course it'll freeze - the water will be only 18 inches deep. ECHDC announced this week that Cheektowaga's DiPizio Construction would be awarded the $20 million contract to build replica canals on Buffalo's waterfront.

On Tuesday, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation board of directors approved the $500,000 Canalside Cultural Master Plan Final Report, which calls for building a $25 million, 22,400-square-foot Buffalo Story Center, including a “children’s experience museum” that would require between 140,000 and 170,000 annual paying customers and an ongoing annual taxpayer subsidy of at least $300,000 in order to break even. The report was prepared by Lord Cultural Resources and Ralph Appelbaum Associates for the CanalSide Cultural Steering Group., and features comparisons to location-themed visitor centers in Montreal, Quebec and in Austin, Texas.

Here's a Buffalo story: The number of children in the region is shrinking, too. How much government subsidy will a new children's museum require, and who will pay it?

The consultants’ report calls for clustering the Buffalo Story Center with a public market, restaurants, and commercial space that it assumes will be leased by government agencies, arts organizations, and other tenants. The report also suggests that the operator of the proposed museum be a not-for-profit entity. ECHDC has now issued a request for proposals from potential operators.

Can it all work? The Strong Museum in Rochester, now branded as the National Museum of Play, has approximately five times the exhibit space as the proposed Buffalo Story Center in a complex of about 300,000 square feet. The Strong Museum draws mainly from Rochester’s metro area, but has, since it was first founded in 1968, grown to an annual attendance of almost 600,000 visitors, with 18,000 member households. According to staffers, the Strong Museum has undergone two expansions since the early 1980s, and has had as many as six separate exhibitions per year as it grew to a $12 million annual operation.

George Hasiotis, a Buffalo business owner who may be appointed the next Erie County Comptroller, led a group in the late 1990s that asked then-Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski to engage the Strong Museum to operate a satellite facility, a Buffalo children’s museum, in the Cobblestone District. In 1998, the thought was to use about $2 million of Erie County capital funds to construct the shell, and to provide a small but steady annual operating subsidy, so that the facility could reach sustainability with the backing of the Strong Museum’s organization and expertise. The idea was dropped. Under Gorski’s successor, Joel Giambra, other proposals for children’s museums were considered, but demographic and financial analysis—even when county funding for museums, arts programs, and other cultural programming was held at over $6 million per year—led to decisions to expand exhibits at the Buffalo Zoo, to refresh the children’s programming and space at the Museum of Science, and to bolster the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society with a new educational alliance with Buffalo State College rather than to try to fund a new destination for a shrinking demographic.

In revising the 2012 Erie County budget, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz asked the Erie County Legislature to reorganize accounts in order to restore almost $1 million in county funds to the cultural budget, which his predecessor, Chris Collins, had reduced to only $4 million. In the Lord-Applebaum plan, there is an explicit expectation of “government” funding to close the annual operating deficit of the proposed Buffalo Story Center, a deficit that will start at $300,000 and grow within five years to about $430,000 even if the projected baseline of about 400 paying visitors a day is maintained. As Erie County is the main source of annual operating assistance for cultural, arts, and museum funding in the region—the City of Buffalo and the State of New York are very minor public funders of those entities—the county budget is the likely source of any public funding that doesn’t come from ECHDC.

The Darwin Martin House: a great restoration that's not yet attracting big crowds.

Buffalo’s existing cultural organizations have some recent experience in projecting audiences and attendance figures, particularly those related to tourists, which the Lord-Applebaum report estimates to be around 40,000 per year at the Buffalo Story Center. The Environmental Impact Study conducted for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House estimated a potential 100,000 annual visitors, based on the experience of Fallingwater, the iconic southwest Pennsylvania Wright-designed house that annually draws about 140,000 visitors. So far, the Darwin Martin House has drawn fewer than one-third the target. The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society may draw as many as 65,000 visitors a year, including elementary and secondary students who arrive there on field trips, but shrinking school budgets (and shrinking enrollments) in both Buffalo and the suburbs may reduce those numbers. If the number of visitors to the new Buffalo-themed museum are comparable to those attending the existing Buffalo-themed museum, then the revenue from ticket sales could shrink far below projections, which would mean that local government would have to double or triple the $300,000+ subsidy that is already assumed.

The request for proposals for a museum designer and operator were published on January 12. A conference will be held on January 25, and proposals are due by March 8. The ECHDC’s target date for opening the museum is Memorial Day, 2016.

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