In an unexpected change in direction, the Finger Lakes Museum’s board of trustees voted to move the project from its proposed location in Keuka Lake State Park to the site of its Discovery Campus in Branchport.
The resolution was unanimously adopted at a special board meeting on August 12th. According to a statement issued to the press Thursday, the public announcement was delayed while museum administrators discussed the change in plans with government officials, state agencies already funding the project, and current and potential benefactors.
The Branchport Elementary School, which the museum purchased from the Penn Yan Central School District for $200,000 in 2012, was initially intended to serve as its Discovery Campus, a research and education center and would have been an adjunct facility to the museum’s main campus in the state park. But during renovations museum official say, when it became evident that none of the classroom walls were structurally load-bearing, they were removed resulting in 17,000 square feet of clear-span open space.
“That’s when we realized that there were more opportunities and options available to us”, said board president John Adamski. “We started to think about more valuable uses for the space. It’s 17,000 square feet of open space that we don’t have to build and it’s situated on 13 acres of land that we already own.”
Contractors have completed more than $1 million in renovation work to the former school building and grounds to date including asbestos abatement, a new roof, new underground electric service, landscaping, additional parking spaces, and a new entrance drive from NYS Route 54A. “It only made sense to capitalize on those investments”, Adamski added.
Some pluses and minuses will result from the change in sites but museum officials feel that the tradeoffs are worthwhile. Anything built by the museum in Keuka Lake State Park would become the property of the state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation because it would be situated on state land. The site was originally offered to the museum in 2010 under the terms of a long-term lease with that and other stipulations included.
Philip Lentini, the museum’s executive director, said that the biggest tradeoff would be losing the spectacular view of Keuka Lake’s west branch. He said, “For me, it makes more sense to build the museum on property we already own and develop a single site. It will be much easier to raise funds, which in turn will accelerate the progress of the project.”
The Discovery Campus initially became a priority because it was the only part of the museum project that was shovel-ready when Gov. Cuomo launched his Regional Economic Development Council Initiative in 2011. But Lentini noted that benefactors are reluctant to contribute to an adjunct facility—especially when the main project hasn’t been built yet.
The new strategy is to build the entire museum at the Branchport site, including the 150,000-gallon freshwater aquarium that was originally slated for the state park. Most of the original plans for Keuka Lake State Park are expected remain in play except for the extensive live animal habitat trail. Museum officials are working with architects and exhibit designers to see how to best transform the building into an exhibit hall and add more space where it is needed. In the meantime, other construction work has been temporarily suspended.
Adamski said that he and Lentini discussed the change in strategy at length with State Parks officials and that they are supportive. The agency will be transferring a $498,000 grant that was awarded to the museum in 2012 for design work at Keuka Lake State Park to be used at the Branchport campus instead. He also said that State Parks wants to continue to partner in events and programs with the museum at the park.
“We are excited that plans for the development of the Finger Lakes Museum continue to advance,” said New York State Commissioner of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation Rose Harvey. “Providing the public with a rich interpretive experience on the geologic and human history of the Finger Lakes stands to be a great economic engine for the region. We look forward to developing cooperative programming and forging strong partnerships with all of our Parks in the Finger Lakes.”
“I believe moving the entire project to the Branchport Elementary School campus is a good strategic decision,” said Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, “and will move the project forward perhaps faster than previously anticipated. The Finger Lakes Museum will be able to focus its energies on further developing a single site where more than $1 million has already been invested in restoring the building and grounds. I support the museum’s board in its decision.”
“The relocation of the Finger Lakes Museum to its campus in Branchport promises an exciting addition to regional tourism, as well as a state-of-the-art facility that will enhance the museum’s overall ability to examine, promote and spread the word about the region’s importance,” Senator Tom O’Mara (R,C,I-Big Flats) said . “It’s going to help place this critical institution in the heart of the community, enhance its accessibility and prominence, and enable more and more area residents, families, educators, students and visitors to enjoy all of the museum’s amazing offerings. We’re fortunate that the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions are home to many of New York State’s exciting and finest museums and historical attractions, and the Finger Lakes Museum stands tall among them in carrying out the mission to showcase the region’s remarkable cultural and natural
Plans that are not expected to change include the construction of a bald eagle aviary and exhibit, an historic 19th-century winery and vineyard, and the Creekside Center—the museum’s canoe and kayak livery on Sugar Creek, which borders the Branchport campus and connects to Keuka Lake.
Museum officials plan to schedule a series of public meetings and design charrettes with community members and potential benefactors to explore ideas for other exhibits and programs. The project is being re-branded “The Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium”.