Oh Wow Purchase of Building is ‘Wow-tastic’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology transitions from a tenant to an owner of the McCrory Building, Ralf Urbach, has high hopes for what will come with the new space

“It’s better than awesome. It’s better than fantastic. It is wow-tastic,” said the museum’s director of education. “It speaks volumes to who we surround ourselves with in the community. It gives solid foundation to the questions of ‘Are you guys going to be around forever?’ ”

Urbach and other officials from the museum in downtown Youngstown gathered Monday to formally announce the purchase of the building. The $828,500 purchase is the second phase of a $15 million campaign that started in 2009 and is planned to conclude in 2024

“So many of our partners have been with us since Day One,” said Suzanne Barbati, president and executive director of Oh Wow. “It speaks to the support by the community of our mission and the facility that we have here.” 

More than $8 million has been invested in the museum since its opening in 2011. Funding has come from earned income, Barbati said, and about 50% has come through donations.

As Oh Wow moved forward with buying the building it calls home, it was a journey fraught with detours, new information and modifications, she said. Staff at the museum wanted to be certain the museum would be sustainable and that the purchase was the right move, she said. 

“Offering new experiences on a regular basis is critically important to our mission and to our customers,” Barbarti said. “We’re working with First Energy on a new energy zone. We have a new traveling exhibit coming in all about velocity and friction.” 

The purchase of the building is a step forward to ensure that children are going to have a place to educate themselves and to further supplement their STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education, Urbach said.

“We’ve never asked for capital funds before, so for us to do this, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched for us to bring in some large-scale funding to help continue to keep this moving forward in a positive manner,” he said. 

The third phase will reorient Oh Wow’s main entrance and facility layout to Central Square. The fourth phase calls for the deployment of a mobile unit to address mental health needs in the community through interactive exhibits. The fifth and final phase will expand  Oh Wow’s “edu-tainment” programs and outreach.

“We’ve been considering this purchase for a year and a half, and [First National Bank] made it possible for us to move forward,” Barbati said. 

Oh Wow has raised $8 million in private funding and has served 510,000 since opening May 2011. This is the first time Oh Wow has requested state capital funds.

First National Bank had been leasing the building to the museum “at a pretty significant discount,” she said, until regulations made the arrangement no longer feasible.

When the arrangement began a decade ago, said FNB Youngstown market President Peter Asimakopoulos, the space at 11 W. Federal St. was vacant on the first floor. It was an easy decision for FNB to support Oh Wow and for the past decade, with the reduced rent and the reduction in sales price, the bank has contributed more than $1 million to the museum, Asimakopoulos said. 

“They’ve done a fabulous job of growing,” he said. “I get to see it first-hand because my office is on the first floor.  [I can see] the buses coming and the kids’ excitement when they go inside and when they come out. It’s been very rewarding.” 

Because all exhibits in Oh Wow are STEM-based, there is no reason why a child couldn’t be engaged and feed their curiosity going from exhibit to exhibit, Urbach said, and having more space will only mean more room for children to explore and learn. 

Oh Wow is partnering with a company that could bring forth an energy exhibit that centers around diversity, local businesses and the manufacturing process in Youngstown, Urbach said. Traveling exhibits could also be in the picture, he said. 

Oh Wow appreciates feedback from customers, Urbach said. Ideas are taken back to the drawing board at Oh Wow and even though they may not come in the form of an exhibit, they may come in the form of programming, he said. The public is welcome to provide Oh Wow with ideas staff could put into the picture, he said. 

“It’s like a place of wonderment,” Urbach said. “It’s like Disney World, but not having to drive hundreds of miles to visit. For any child becoming a new member now, 10 years down the road, it’s just going to be better.” 

Pictured: Peter J. Asimakopoulos, Youngstown market president, First National Bank; Suzanne Barbati, president, Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology;  Ralf Urbach, director of education; and Oh Wow Bruce Sherman, chairman of the Oh Wow board of directors. 

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.