The Strong’s Neighborhood of Play
This past April, the Strong National Museum of Play broke ground on the second phase of a $75 million, 90,000 square foot expansion that will be the centerpiece of the new Neighborhood of Play in downtown Rochester. Included in this expansion are two exhibitions dedicated to the ways that video games and technology changed play, a state-of-the-art welcome atrium and admissions area, and a new flexible Maker’s Space/Play Lab for interactive workshops, classes, and activities. The expansion is expected to increase annual attendance from 600,000 to nearly 1 million visitors.
Need for Space
“Since we opened our doors in 1982, the Strong has always had a kind of philosophy to try to improve and move forward,” said Museum President and CEO Steve Dubnik. “We’re always looking for opportunities to continue to improve and grow so we can present more things.” The Museum has undergone two previous expansions– the first in 1995 that added the atrium and the second in 2006 that added 135,000 square feet for the Museum’s reading adventure land.
By the mid-2000’s the Museum realized that video games were an important part of where play was going. “We needed to begin preserving and representing video games in our collection and exhibitions,” said Dubnik. The Museum started seriously collecting video games in 2007 and formed the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. Today the collection contains more than 60,000 artifacts and hundreds of thousands of archival materials, including games and the platforms on which they are played on, game packaging and advertising, game-related publications, game-inspired consumer products, and other items that illustrate the impact of electronic games in people’s lives. “As we started growing this collection, we began looking for ways to display and to talk about the impact of electronic games on play. We began reallocating space while always kind of keeping an eye out. It was an ongoing goal to expand.”
The new museum wing will house the Worlds Video Game Hall of Fame and the Digital Worlds Gallery. The Galley’s two exhibitions, “High Score” and “Level Up” offer an interactive look at the history of video games. Exhibitions will also highlight the contributions of Women and People of Color to the video game industry. “We wanted to use this expansion as an opportunity to celebrate, preserve, and study the impact of video games in order to help people understand that while video games are played there is a lot of learning happening,” said Dubnik.
Another reason for this expansion was that the Museum’s audience continues to grow. “We reached close to 600,000 people in 2019 and there were days where the museum was close to capacity,” said Dubnik. “So if we wanted to continue to grow and attract more people, we needed more space. All of these things came together and led to the idea of creating a neighborhood of play as a way to increase our footprint. We were looking for a way to increase our marketing area to bring more people into Rochester from 4 to 5 hours drive time away. And if we were going to do that, we would need a place for them to stay that was nearby.”
Creating a Neighborhood of Play
In 2013, the City of Rochester was awarded a $17.7 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the Federal Government to fill in portions of its Inner Loop, creating pockets of developable land, including the southeast loop adjacent to The Strong. The City wanted to “bridge the moat” between the city center and communities like the Neighborhood of Play that have been separated by the Inner Loop since the 1950s. “Now we had buildable land next to us,” said Dubnik. “We started engaging planning consultants and reached out to our community to talk about what were some of the possibilities for the museum. We started planning and the whole idea of creating a neighborhood of play with the ability to live, work, and stay in the same area and in a neighborhood that is focused on play really grew from that whole process.”
The Museum partnered with two local commercial developers–a developer who owns and operated multiple hotels in the Finger Lakes region and the other who is focused on mixed-use development. “We partnered with them but we don’t actually have an economic interest in those portions of the development. It’s not a legal partnership but we very much act like partners in that we use the same civil engineering firm and the same architect so that the design is consistent and cohesive. We are using different builders, but they’re meeting and coordinating on all these different elements.”
The first phase completed was a new, five-story covered garage with 1,000 parking spaces completed in 2020. “We doubled our parking spaces from 500 to 1000 and going vertical with a parking garage freed up land that we could sell to our development partners,” said Dubnik.
The Neighborhood of Play features a 17,000 square foot outdoor play exhibit, a 125-room all-suites Hampton Inn and Suites, 240 residential units with 17,000 square feet of retail space that includes a play-oriented restaurant called Nirvana. The video game-themed restaurant will open in late 2022.
“The other key part of this expansion was creating additional space for more visitation, so we conducted a marketing study as part of this project,” said Dubnik. The Museum surveyed communities in Toronto, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, areas in eastern New York to find out what would attract people to Rochester. “We needed to find out how many people we could expect to come and visit Rochester and the survey revealed that we could get more than half a million with certain types of development, including video games, and so we built a business plan around getting 400,000 more people to visit the Museum.” The Museum also spoke with neighborhood residents and business leaders about what they wanted to see developed. “We worked with our other cultural partners in Rochester and formed what we call ‘Play Rochester,’ a partnership where we do some joint marketing campaigns,” said Dubnik. ‘Play Rochester’ includes the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Seneca Park Zoo, the Eastman Museum, and Genessee Country Villiage & Museum. “We very much made this expansion project a collaboration within the community, businesses, and with other cultural organizations.”
The project is supported by the Museum’s $60 million “Powered by Play” capital campaign which has raised $50 million thus far through private and public donations. New York State’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative was one of the first contributors with $20 million that helped start the project. Other support has come from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Support from private foundations include $100,000 from the Kilian J. and Caroline F. Schmitt Foundation to build three video game preservation labs, a $5 million capital grant from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, and $500,000 from the Louis S. and Molly B. Wolk Foundation in which the Museum will name the new admission area the Wolk Admission Area.
The Museum also entered a naming partnership with ESL Federal Credit Union. ESL Federal Credit Union committed $1.5 million which gives them naming rights to the 24,000 square foot Digital Worlds Galley for 25 years.
“One of our goals has really been to be a national museum and we’ve focused on building our relationship with the toy and video game industries,” said Dubnik. “We’re the home to the toy hall of fame and we work with those larger toy companies for their help in our expansion and likewise with the larger video game industry whether it’s Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony. Creating those national and international collaborations and bringing that to Rochester has been an important part of what we do.”
The expansion and Neighborhood of Play are expected to open to the public in summer 2023. For more information visit, https://www.museumofplay.org/support/expansion-campaign/ and https://www.neighborhoodofplay.org/