Saranac Lake Play ADK museum enters design phase

A rendering of Play ADK created by Premises Architecture. (Photo provided — Play ADK)

SARANAC LAKE — The effort to build a new children’s museum in Saranac Lake, Play ADK, is now in the design phase.

Building a museum takes time, but a significant advancement in the effort to make Play ADK a reality came recently when the organization behind the museum contracted with Phinney Design Group to begin the first phase of the construction project. Phase one will include the creation of a conceptual design, an existing conditions report and putting together an accurate cost estimate.

In a press release, Play ADK’s Board of Trustees chair, Deb Roddy, said this design phase of the contract “has been a long time coming.”

“It’s surreal to see them get to work on transforming our old warehouse into the Adirondacks’ first children’s museum and family resource center,” Roddy wrote.

When the museum will open depends largely on how much money the organization can raise, Play ADK Executive Director Rob Carr said, adding that Play ADK could open its doors by 2025 at the earliest if it meets all of its fundraising goals.

This design phase will be an expensive process, Carr said, but an important tool for cultivating support, both financial and otherwise. He said the plans should be ready to show to the public in the fall, and they’ll have more than blueprints to show. Carr said they expect to have a three-dimensional interactive model of the museum, inside and out.

“It’s really amazing what architects are able to produce now,” Carr said.

This should be a big pull for investors and donors, he said.

Donors and investors want to see plans — a fleshed-out vision and concept plan — he said.

“(Franklin County Adirondack Frontier CEO) Jeremy Evans calls it the ‘funding vortex of doom,'” Carr said. “You need a significant amount of funding to get to the point where you can receive a significant amount of funding.”

Carr said he wants to communicate the project’s milestones with the community better. It’s hard to see advancement with no construction going on yet, but he said there’s been a lot going on behind the scenes to get the project funded.

In 2018, Play ADK was awarded $949,000 through New York state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative program as part of a larger $10 million award for the village of Saranac Lake. Carr said he had to “hustle” to get the DRI grant. It took getting people to trust him enough to give him money to even secure the grant, which itself is only meant to carry the project through conceptual design on its way to securing more funding.

Carr said that Play ADK spends money and gets reimbursed on it quarterly from the state through the DRI. The project also got $1 million from the state in 2019 through a Consolidated Funding Application grant. It has received private grants from the Cloudsplitter Foundation and “hundreds of thousands of dollars in community gifts.”

“We cannot thank our community enough,” Carr said.

Play ADK purchased its property — the big, red former Branch and Callanan warehouse on Depot Street, in 2021, which is a big benefit, he said.

Play ADK also now has contracts with an architect and a construction management company.

Current project estimates were done in 2019, before the pandemic, but forecasted a $6 million to $7 million project. As the costs of everything from labor to materials have gotten more expensive, Carr said costs for similar projects have increased by 25% to 100%, and he expects the same may apply to Play ADK.

But, now, Carr says the organization has a good “nest egg in the bank” and its 13-member board of directors is confident they can make the museum happen.

A place for play

Carr is planning exhibits for the youngest players through the oldest. He said the museum’s exhibits will be “high-touch and low-tech. … analog and colorful.” Kids don’t need digital displays, he said.

“Kids can engage in meaningful play with some sticks and a cardboard box. … Not to say that’s what the experience is going to be,” Carr added, with a laugh.

He said exhibits will be made for climbing and crawling — building muscles as well as minds.

There will be stations for youngsters to engage in imaginary play — replicating the things they see adults do — sitting at the wheel of a fire truck; pretending to work at a farm, grocery store or logging camp; and playing with tiny beakers in a little laboratory.

There are plans for a STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — maker space for teens to start wrapping their minds around technical fields.

Carr said there will also be space for parents to build community. It can be isolating to be a parent in the North Country, he said. And if Saranac Lake wants to attract families to the area, he believes something like a children’s museum is needed.

Family center

Carr said he’s working with the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country to design a family resource center to offer things like access to the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; support groups and education programs for parents; developmental assessments for children and counseling.

He said, with these offices “wrapped in a children’s museum,” where parents and their families will be, he hopes they’ll be able to use them more than if the offices were in a stuffy building somewhere.

Carr said CCCCNC has offices in Plattsburgh and Tupper Lake and though they’ve been trying for decades to open one in Saranac Lake, they haven’t been able to make it financially viable. By using tourism revenue at the museum to supplement these resources, he hopes the center can make them sustainable.

In Franklin County, one-in-four families live below the poverty line, according to United Way of the Adirondack Region. Around 40% of families in the county live at or below the ALICE line — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — a metric United Way uses to find how many households of employed people, earning more than the federal poverty level, still struggle to afford basic household necessities.

This percentage rises much higher for single-parent families.

An unlikely pioneer

Carr has been working in informal education and exhibit development for 20 years, but always focused on older audiences and more intellectual subject matter.

“I always thumbed my nose at children’s museums,” Carr said. “I looked at them like glorified playgrounds and really had no interest in working in that part of the industry.”

He couldn’t understand what the big deal was.

“And then I had a kid,” Carr said, and the challenges of raising a child in this area became real.

His son, Tennessee, is 8 now. But when he was young, and there wasn’t much to do indoors in the winters, Carr said.

Carr said the Tri-Lakes area has limited child-rearing resources — resources that are taken for granted elsewhere. One of those is just a place for young children to enjoy activities where they don’t have to bundle up against the cold for six months out of the year.

“Children’s museums are far and away the most effective informal educational institutions you can make,” he said. “They get at a specific need kids require for development.”

Carr said children’s museums are not for teaching — they are for exploration, imagination, socialization, discovery, self-discovery and play.

“It’s letting kids do what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “Play is the real work of children. We’re just creating a space for it.”

Now, he said he’s poured tens of thousands of hours into creating a museum, inspired by his son. Carr said he started working on the idea for the museum when Tennessee was 1.

“Now I just want to get it done before he has kids,” Carr said.


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