Concerns arise over the future of the Discovery Center

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Some longtime supporters of the Discovery Center say they are alarmed that an effort to shutter the 36-year-old children’s museum and absorb it into Roberson is being shrouded in secrecy.

However, the leadership of both organizations say they are currently doing their due diligence in discussing a possible affiliation and that they’re looking forward to engaging stakeholders in the process soon.

Both say they’re acting out of a great love for the Discovery Center and are trying to preserve its special brand of magic.

When the COVID pandemic shut down the Discovery Center in March, it began losing revenue from museum admission and its preschool and after-school programs.

Board of Directors Treasurer Zach Staff says an organization that had had some up years and some down years financially in recent times suddenly found itself in a major cash crunch.

“Our cash reserves were down in the ballpark of $70,000 to $80,000 in cash. It was concerning to us because our payroll is relatively high in the scheme of things,” Staff says.

Initially, the Discovery Center had to lay off much of its staff, but was able to bring most of them back with federal Payroll Protection Program funding.

But the revenue losses remained.

So, Executive Director Jessie Stone He, who took over late last year, reached out to her former employer, the Roberson Museum about a possible affiliation.

Meanwhile, the Discovery Center Foundation, a group tasked with raising funds for the organization, contributed $75,000 for operating expenses.

The foundation’s board is made up of 16 people, many with longstanding ties to the institution.

Secretary Nikki Corgel has been engaged with the Discovery Center for 33 years as a volunteer, donor, partner in art projects and member of both boards.

Corgel says the foundation’s board has been left out of the current affiliation discussions.

“We haven’t been given a role here. No discussion. It’s been done without any appreciation of all the years and decades of commitment. And it breaks my heart, yes,” she said.

In May, Roberson and Discovery Center enlisted the assistance of the New York Council of Nonprofits.

Each organization assembled a 5 person task force to meet weekly to consider various aspects of cooperation.

A news release sent out last month indicated that sharing of resources, a combined administration and a full-on merger were all under consideration.

Concerned parent and former Discovery Center employee Gabrielle Wayman says she’s worried that a decision to close the current facility and move its exhibits to Roberson has already been made.

“A worst case scenario. And I would understand that in times of financial stress or other needs, that that could be an option, could be a required outcome. I don’t see or hear anything that says we’re at that point yet. That’s what I’m concerned about,” she says.

To that end, Wayman has started an online petition, which garnered over 1,000 signatures in a matter of just a few days, and has been sent to local, state and federal representatives asking for greater transparency.

Stone He says the discussion timeline agreed upon with NYCON calls for stakeholder engagement which is scheduled to begin next month.

She says that by combining forces, they can create a more sustainable organization that both maintains and builds upon the current programming.

“The vision of these affiliation talks are to create a single, sustainable, multi-generational space that brings together all of these wonderful cultural assets that we have in the community, brings together talents and community support,” she said.

Stone He says the Roberson location on Front Street is also more accessible for disadvantaged and minority children.

The Community Foundation for South Central New York is one of four local funders providing money for the NYCON process.

Executive Director Diane Brown says nonprofits need to think differently in an era of shrinking population and fewer large corporate givers.

“If you’ve got a thoughtful, careful board of directors, and I think both of them do, and you’re sitting down with a similar organization as yours to discuss the possibility of some sort of affiliation, I think they’re doing exactly the right thing given the current atmosphere,” she says.

The current timeline has the task forces making their recommendations on an affiliation to their respective boards by January 1st.

Please note that our story contained video taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Discovery Center and Roberson have created a website to answer questions people may have about the affiliation talks.

It’s http://BuildingSustainableMuseums.org.

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