Oh Wow Provides Services, Pursues Renovation, While Closed

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology will remain largely quiet until a planned reopening in May 2021, but the center will remain active with its mission.

The center’s long-planned renovation, digital programming and new at-home science kits are keeping Oh Wow connected with the community, and even a virtual edition of its signature Science of Brewing fundraiser is on tap for summer.

“It’s different and we miss having people in the building,” says Suzanne Barbati, Oh Wow’s president and executive director. “It’s quite a bit more quiet than normal but it will set us up for the future.”

Oh Wow — which offers exhibits and education based on the STEM disciplines, science, technology, engineering and mathematics — closed March 12, when Gov. Mike DeWine ordered Ohio schools closed for what was to be a three-week period to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Schools stayed closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year, and Oh Wow announced to members June 19 that the center would remain closed until next May, reopening to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Oh Wow memberships will be extended for a year past the May 2021 reopening, Barbati says. Passes that have been distributed in the community also will have their deadlines extended.

Though Oh Wow is closed, residents can still purchase STEM Saks, says Suzanne Barbati, president and executive director.

The decision to remain closed followed deliberations among Oh Wow’s board of directors, a survey of members and a look at what other museums in Ohio and Pennsylvania were doing.

“Nobody seemed to know what the best course of action was, so we made the determination after those efforts … that it was just not safe to open at this time, and it was unclear when it would be safe to open in this environment,” Barbati says.

“All of our exhibits are hands-on and interactive,” she continues. “We cannot make it safe enough to keep our clients safe, to keep our communities safe.”

The decision was to remain closed until Oh Wow received “guidance that we think we could live with” and to continue to offer virtual programming and online sessions, says Bruce Sherman, immediate past chairman of Oh Wow’s board of directors. The center is also distributing STEM Saks, which contain four science projects each that can be made of recycled, up-cycled and refurbished materials.

“We’re not happy but we needed to ensure the safety of our patrons, of the kids and the parents and grandparents that come,” he says. “We’re sick about it, but we don’t want them to get sick. We’re being as cautious as we can and working toward reopening as soon as we can safely do that.”

Keeping Oh Wow closed until May was a “tough decision” because Oh Wow means so much to the community, especially with schools remaining closed, says Ellie Platt, owner of Platt Insurance Group, Howland, and a member of Oh Wow’s board.

“It wasn’t a decision anybody on the board took lightly, but there’s so much uncertainty,” Platt says.

Though the exhibit space is closed, Oh Wow staff who are still employed – the center downsized from about 20 to the current seven during the pandemic – report to the center for work, and the museum’s souvenir shop will reopen in a couple weeks, Barbati says.

Oh Wow also will be offering tours to describe plans for the center over the next nine months and to solicit feedback, as well as potential investors and sponsors, “people who understand our brand and want to take advantage of our brand” by sponsoring an Oh Wow event, she says.

In addition to reorienting the main entrance from West Federal Street to Central Square and adding a bus pull off on Market Street in front of the museum, Oh Wow will reevaluate all of its exhibits and floor space on the interior, she says.

The Oh Wow souvenir shop will reopen this week.

“The game plan moving forward is to reorganize the museum,” she says. Oh Wow is evaluating 12 submissions it received in response to its request for qualifications, and Barbati says she expects to select an architect by the end of July.

That will mean assessing among other features, the first-floor water table. As it’s currently configured, half the table would have to be shut down to meet with social distancing requirements. Other problematic features include the Lego table, hurricane chamber and Catenary Arch.

Oh Wow will work with the architect to address those issues, Barbati says.

“Come May of 2021, when we celebrate our 10th anniversary, our structure and our traffic patterns will have been modified that if COVID-19 comes back, or some other issue arises, that the museum will be structured in a way that keeps our clients safe and still enables us to remain open,” she says.

“We’re making the best out of the situation that we can,” Sherman says. “People have been very understanding and appreciative we’re taking whatever precautions are necessary but also still figuring out ways we can provide STEM-based education so kids can keep learning.”

Fundraising for renovation of the McCrory Building, which Oh Wow acquired last year, is the third phase of what Barbati characterizes as a 15-year, $15 million campaign. Oh Wow recently received $250,000 from the Hine Memorial Fund toward the project.

Oh Wow’s director of education, Ralf “Mr. Ralf” Urbach, and his team of “edutainers” are doing all kinds of virtual programming,” as well as working with summer programs, Barbati says.

“We’re working with school and programs throughout the region to offer edutainment, if you will, in a way that only Mr. Ralf and his staff can provide,” she says. “It’s all about the Oh Wow moment. It’s all about experimentation. It’s all about making adjustments and observations and that scientific process of inquiry.”

As with many businesses, the pandemic forced Oh Wow to accelerate plans it already had, Platt says. “It helped us really focus on the digital, online and remote services we can offer,” she adds.

“In the midst of the quarantine, we were really able to enhance the digital and online programs” as well as the STEM Saks, permitting Oh Wow to offer services remotely throughout the community, Platt says.

The foundation of the virtual programming that Urbach and his team are doing is the STEM Sak, Barbati notes.

“They’re typically materials that people can find in their own home, because we believe that science is not a 45-minute period once a week,” she says. “Science happens all day, every day, from the minute you put an ice cube in your glass of iced tea to cooking chicken on the grill.”

A studio for virtual programming was already in the works for the renovation, but the increased programming during the pandemic makes it even more of a priority, Barbati says.

“In fact, the question becomes how many do we need? Is one going to be enough?” she asks. “If we start broadcasting to California, to Hawaii, we will need more people. We might need more studio space.”

Two of Oh Wow’s best-known events will return in virtual format, Science of Brewing: Home Edition, which is scheduled for Aug. 9, and Silly Science Sunday, which will return in the fall.

Details are still being worked out for Silly Science Sunday, which will take place in September, Barbati says.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen with larger events,” says Platt, who is chairwoman of the Science of Brewing event. “We wanted to be as cautious as possible.”

People will be able to purchase tickets for access to the virtual event, which Vintage Estate Wine and Beer will host, as well as a six-pack of beers from local breweries. An online auction will take place at the end of the virtual tasting event, she says.

Six breweries and a winery already have committed to participate, and Kravitz Deli/Inspired Catering will be the VIP vendor for the event, Barbati says. Oh Wow is also working with area restaurants to provide discounts to Science of Brewing ticket buyers to order food for their watch parties.

Science of Brewing is “a key fundraiser” for Oh Wow “but we want to help restaurants move beyond COVID-19 and expand their reach,” she says.

Platt is encouraged by the response to other virtual fundraisers, including the American Heart Association’s Tri-County Heart Ball. The Homes and Hops Virtual 5K Run and Walk, which raised funds for Oh Wow, had 221 participants, a much better response that anticipated, Platt says.

The goal for the in-person event was 300 so getting 221 for the virtual run/walk “was really terrific,” Barbati adds.

Oh Wow netted $25,000 from Science of Brewing last year, and Platt says she expects to do even better this year.

“We continue to have the same mission. We’ll continue all of those efforts to inform and educate our community, not just about science at home but about the resources that Oh Wow can offer,” Barbati says.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.