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Adam Interviews Museum of Play CEO

Steve Dubnik on why Strong Museum of Play might draw from Toronto and Pittsburgh

On July 14th, the Strong Museum of Play will break ground on a $115 million dollar expansion.
Already one of the top tourist destinations in Western New York, the museum could soon attract hundreds of thousands more people with a new parking garage, a hotel and added play space.
Adam Chodak talked with the museum's president and CEO, Steve Dubnik, about why the expansion could expand the museum's draw.
Adam: The expansion. How's that going? What are we looking at?
Dubnik: The expansion is going. If you drove up, you probably saw some construction equipment out there. It's going. Some banners on the fence. We've launched it and we're on track hopefully to continue and complete in mid 2020.
Adam: What do you think?
Dubnik: It's exciting. The expansion and what we're doing here is transformational both for this portion of Rochester and Rochester in total. What we have the opportunity to do is to create and enlarge what is already the top tourist attraction in Western New York to be even much more so that it is today. It has the opportunity to completely transform this section of the city which was frankly fairly barren up to recently and now it's a thriving part of the city and will reconnect the Park Ave and Alexander neighborhoods to all the great things that are happening in Midtown. So I'm excited.
Adam: Could this have happened with the Inner Loop being filled it?
Dubnik: When we found out the city was working on the grant to fill in the Inner Loop we started thinking about what opportunities that it would create. The Inner Loop being filled in and giving us these buildable lots gave us the opportunity to create this neighborhood and expansion with a neighborhood around it focused on play.
Adam: Where did the money come from for all this?
Dubnik: It's still coming. We're working through it. The overall budget is $115 million budget, the Strong's piece is about half of that and we've got about half of that targeted so far, which gets us to a point where we can begin Phase 1.
Adam: I've spent a lot of time here with my son and I look around and I think what more could you possibly pack in – so I guess that's my question, what's going into this expansion?
Dubnik: 2008-2009 we recognized that video games had transformed the way people were playing, the way people were socializing, the way they connected with each other and we decided if we're going to be the National Museum of Play we should study video games and we did that. We went from having a few hundred items in our collection to more than 60,000 video game items in our collection. We've taken space away from other things to make it available, but now we have the opportunity to create the expansion and to put video game exhibits in there. What we're planning is a world video game Hall of Fame, which is going to be similar in terms of its elegance to what we have for the National Toy of Fame. One of the things we've talked about is Space Invaders, which many are familiar with, but instead of play it with your hands and thumbs, you'll have to run back and forth and shoot at things on the screen, so it'll be a combination of physical play with the video game play.
Adam: It seems like a happy coincidence that as you're doing this, you have RIT expanding its relationship with video games.
Dubnik: RIT is a wonderful partner of ours. We actually have agreements in place between our institution and theirs where we share resources, we make our resources around us available to them as they bring people in. They provide us with coops and interns in our mission to study play and preserve play so it's a fabulous coincidence because we have the top video game museum and we have one of the top video game universities side by side.
Adam: What do you think the draw will look like once the expansion is complete?
Dubnik: Our museum gets over 550,000 people every year since our last expansion in 2006. We did a study, a very substantial study, where we looked at expanding our marketing area to pick up Toronto to pick up Cleveland, to pick up Pittsburgh, eastern New York, Hudson Valley area and that study came back and said that we can pick up 400,000 more people. We think when this is all done and we've expanded the footprint and we've added these new fantastic exhibits that we'll approach a million people coming into our museum, with more than half coming from outside the Finger Lakes area and bringing their money into the Rochester area and helping our economy.
Adam: Do you think while most people appreciate the play aspect of this, they don't know about the storage or museum component of Strong?
Dubnik: I don't think a lot of people get that. A large portion does. We publish a peer-reviewed scholarly journal called the American Journal of Play where we publish 3 times a year and it goes out to more than 4,000 people and they see the academic side of the museum of play, we have over 80 different researchers who come into our facility to come in annually to look at some aspect of play or items related to play to help their academic studies. So I don't think many people understand it, but it's a key part of what we do.
Adam: There was some worry initially with you moving from board chair into the CEO position, a little bit abnormal when it comes to non-profits, has that been difficult at all?
Dubnik: The board went through a process to determine what was best in their view for the institution moving forward, we have a very large project in front of us that I've been a key part of to that stage and they felt that given what we've already invested and where we were going it made the best sense for the museum to make that transition, I was willing and happy to do that, so it was really based on something that I think has gone over well and I think the proof is in the pudding on how things are going.

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