By James Fink, originally published in Buffalo Business First on 2/3/15.

Explore & More takes big step toward $10 million goal

Calling it a major milestone in its quest to develop a Canalside attraction, Explore & More Children’s Museum is expected to secure a $1.7 million state grant, giving it $6 million of the $10 million it needs for its downtown project.

The Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board late Monday recommended that the New York Power Authority Board of Trustees make the allocation. The funds will help the museum toward its goal of completing its $10 million capital campaign by the end of the year.

The nearly 40,000-square-foot museum is expected to anchor a proposed series of new buildings on the southern portion of the former Memorial Auditorium site and would neighbor the replica Erie Canal waterways — currently home to Ice@Canalside. Explore & More hopes to open the museum by the end of 2016.

“We are fully confident that we will reach our goal,” said David McNamara, Phillips Lytle managing partner and chairman of Explore & More’s “Play it Forward” campaign.

The allocation comes just a few days after the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. received one bid from a development interest to build out the Explore & More and other buildings that collectively may total 100,000 square feet. That bid is still being reviewed.

McNamara said securing the power proceeds allocation is key for the capital campaign. Some $4.2 million has already been raised through pledges made by such groups as Wegmans Food Markets, Fisher Price and the John R. Oishei Foundation.

Explore & More plans to relocate from East Aurora to Canalside when the museum is completed.

The entire museum project carries an $11.6 million development price tag, including its interior exhibits. McNamara hopes to have all the funds in place well before the new museum opens.

“We are not contemplating any scenario where we would have to scale back the building or exhibits due to our inability to raise the necessary funds,” McNamara said.

Barbara Leggett, Explore & More executive director, said the museum is expecting to welcome more than 225,000 visitors in its first year at Canalside and then average somewhere around 181,000 annual visitors.

Leggett estimates it will cost around $2 million annually to operate the museum, with 70 percent coming directly from admission costs, building rentals for private parties and events, gift shop sales and other revenue sources.

Projections show local visitors spending $22 each beyond the museum’s admission price on souvenirs or food while out-of-town visitors may spend as much as $38 per person on the same set of extras.

The museum will be anchored by seven signature exhibits: “Moving Water,” “From Farm to Fork,” “Lighting Buffalo’s Imagination,” “Building Buffalo,” “Playing Together,” “Good Neighbors” and “Weather-Wise.”

“This is a very exciting project,” said Brenda McDuffie, Buffalo Urban League president and a proceeds board director. “It really integrates the notion of family and community together into Canalside.”

The construction is expected to start later this year as the capital campaign progresses and when the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. officially designates a developer for the complex. That designation should come this winter.