Oh Wow! Children’s Museum to Buy McCrory Building

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology will go from being a tenant of its downtown building to being its owner by the end of the year.

The purchase will give the downtown science museum the ability to better determine its own destiny, museum officials say, and eventually enable it to move the entrance to Market Street with a bus drop-off area as depicted in a proposed rendering above.

Oh Wow will sign paperwork Dec. 16 to take ownership of the McCrory building from its current owner, First National Bank, Suzanne Barbati, Oh Wow president and executive director, reported Friday.

“We’re very excited,” she says.

Spurred by a change in banking regulations, Oh Wow! began looking at buying the building in early 2018. When museum founders initially identified the McCrory building space in 2009, FNB offered “a pretty significant discount” on the market rate for the space for the first seven years of its operation, though 2017, according to Barbati.

“Specifically, it made it possible for us to operate in the black,” she explains. In the intervening years, those regulations changed so that FNB would not longer be able to offer that “level of forgiveness,” which would have more than doubled Oh Wow’s rent.

After conducting due diligence and meeting with accountants, attorneys and FNB leadership, purchasing the building outright made more sense, Barbati says.

“We’ve already put $2.5 million in capital investment into this building. It felt very inappropriate, if you will, not to take that level of investment into account. We did consider purchasing elsewhere but by the time we moved everything, it would be another $1 million over the cost of another building, over the cost of renovation,” she says.

“We didn’t make the decision lightly. We feel strongly as an anchor in the downtown area that it’s appropriate to invest in the prime real estate block in the center of the city.”

Suzanne Barbati is executive director of Oh Wow!

“We want to stay in downtown,” adds Bruce Sherman, chairman of the Oh Wow board of directors. “We want to be part of the revitalization of our community.”

The board made the decision in early 2019 to purchase the building and this summer launched a quiet fundraising campaign to that raised “sufficient cash” to execute the purchase, Sherman says.

Barbati declines to provide a sale price or disclose how much the fundraising campaign raised, but says she would provide those figures later. All the funds were raised privately and locally, “which from my perspective speaks volumes to the level of support we have in our community,” she points out.

Oh Wow also has been working with the building’s other tenants – Youngstown CityScape, the downtown revitalization organization that focuses on beautification and cleanup efforts, and BSHM Architects Inc. – to coordinate plans for the building.

Built in 1910, the building is valued at $790,240, Mahoning County property records show.

“Everything that we have done in the past 20-plus years has been in anticipation of all of these kinds of things happening in downtown,” says Sharon Letson, Youngstown CityScape executive director.

“This allows us to be the masters of our destiny,” Sherman continues. The purchase provides room for further expansion and gives the museum more options to make changes as funding becomes available, and to be prepared for changes in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education.

“It puts us in control of our own destiny in the future and allows us to expand the exhibits in the museum,” affirms Chuck George, incoming board chairman. The donor support this summer’s campaign received proves that Oh Wow is a “viable entity” and has sustainable programs, he says.

According to a feasibility study, the purchase will increase available exhibit space by 70%, Barbati said. The museum, which is on the ground floor and basement level of the building, occupies about 19,000 square feet.

Oh Wow plans to add three new exhibits in 2020, including a visiting exhibit, “Velocity,” that will focus on cars, friction, speed and math. The decision to bring in that exhibit was based on the success of the racetrack that was part of Silly Science Sunday this year, she notes.

Almost immediately upon taking possession of the building, the administrative offices on the lower level will relocate to the second floor, freeing that space for exhibits. Barbati is considering relocating the music exhibits from the main floor into a lower level space with improved soundproofing, although a final decision has not been made.

One of the priority projects will be reorienting the entrance from West Federal Street to Market Street to better showcase the museum, and to create a pull-off area for buses to drop off students for field trips.

Work will be completed in phases. Oh Wow is continuing to raise funds as part of a 15-year, $15 million fundraising campaign that encompasses campaigns dating to 2009 and is planned to conclude in 2024, with “significant progress” on renovations planned by the museum’s 10th anniversary in 2021, Barbati says.

As additional funds are raised, Oh Wow will be able to expand to the second and third floors of the building as well, George adds.

Oh Wow and CityScape have been sharing space as the museum has run out of room, Letson says. All she sees changing with Oh Wow buying the building is “better things happening for our community,” she predicts.

“We’ve supported them, they have supported us and the result has been good for the whole community.”

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.