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Marbles' expansion answers: What's planned right now, what improvements could come, will it close for construction

Posted September 19
Updated October 9

As Marbles Kids Museum celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, museum leaders have their sights set on two things - improving the already popular, but often crowded experiences for today's visitors and making sure the museum is ready for the kids of tomorrow.

Marbles made a big leap in that direction with the announcement this week that it had purchased the 16,500-square-foot building that sits next to the museum's central courtyard. Once home to Longleaf School of the Arts, owner MDO Holdings sold the property to Marbles at a discount for $3.1 million. The property at 217 E. Hargett St., in the center of booming downtown Raleigh and across the street from Moore Square, which is in line for a major renovation, has a tax value of $2.2 million. (Longleaf School of the Arts is moving to a bigger space, with room to grow, just south of downtown Raleigh).

Expansion and updates have always been in the cards for Marbles.

The museum opened in September 2007 after a merger between two groups - the popular hands-on Playspace, which called a small space in Raleigh's Glenwood South home, and Exploris, a center about the world which Marbles' current space was built for. In fact, Exploris once owned the building that Marbles just purchased to house its Exploris Middle School, a charter school that now operates completely separately. But the center had run up debt, and the building was returned to the bank.

Sally Edwards, Marbles CEO, said it was critical for the museum to acquire the building as it made plans for its future. Marbles is part of a public-private partnership with Wake County. Both the museum and Marbles' IMAX theater buildings are owned by Wake County. Marbles, a non-profit, runs everything inside. But, this time, Marbles actually purchased 217 E. Hargett on its own, taking out a loan, Edwards said.

"We needed to take advantage of the window of opportunity," Edwards said. "This building is so strategically situated for our future expansion that we really couldn't run the risk that it was flipped to another owner who wasn't interested in the future of Marbles."

Phase 'zero'

Just exactly what's going to happen to the new property - and Marbles' existing buildings - is up in the air. In fact, Edwards joked that Marbles is calling this step of the project "phase zero." The focus in the past few months has been simply to acquire the property.

"We had to purchase it before we had done any capital campaign or had fleshed out any details and created an expanded campus footprint," she said.

Now, she says, just about everything is on the table, including renovations and changes to the museum's existing building. Marbles, Wake County and ClearScapes, the original architecture firm for the museum building, are in talks about what's possible. More details about what could be in Marbles' future could be announced by early October. No major construction will begin for another couple of years.

"At this point, we're really just looking at building blocks and moving things around to meet our needs," Edwards said.

Edwards outlined some of those needs:

More room: When Marbles opened in 2007, leaders hoped that 175,000 visitors would walk through the door. Today, nearly 500,000 visit the museum, considered a top tourist destination in the region and state. In July alone, there were 64,000 visitors.

"People really respond to the type of play experience that we offer here at Marbles and, generally, it's just too crowded," she said. "We've heard from the community that they want more elbow room - more elbow room for every day play and for peak demand."

More flex space: Anybody who has tried to schedule a Marbles summer camp for their kids know that they fill up - and fast. This summer, Marbles' summer camps were at 103 percent capacity, Edwards said. Flex space would allow for more camps. It also would mean there would be more room for field trips to eat lunch or parents to take workshops.

"We run out of flex space really quickly," Edwards said. "We'd love to expand our camps, but we are over capacity. We have to limit our field trip visitors because we don't have enough space for school lunches."

More exhibit space: This could include more or expanded exhibits for little ones (ages 3 to 7 is Marbles' sweet spot). But the museum also is working to add more activities for older kids, who have aged out of Marbles' existing exhibits, but still tag along on family outings to the museum. Marbles has been experimenting with activities for older kids, including this summer's Innovation Play Labs, which were designed for kids ages 8 and up.

"We've heard from our community that they want to have more dedicated space for older kids so that families can play at Marbles together," Edwards said.

Reconfigured spaces: While the existing 80,000-square-foot building was designed for a museum, it wasn't designed specifically for a children's museum. Edwards said there are a variety of ways to update the space so that it's more efficient, including, for instance, moving storage areas and redesigning the lobby, which often is packed with families waiting to get in.

"The lobby is so inadequate for people coming in," Edwards said.

Changes will continue

As usual, Marbles will continue to work to update existing exhibits and spaces as it always has - even before any major work begins. In the last couple of years, Marbles has opened or improved exhibits, including TreeTunes outdoor musical exhibit, What's the Weather in its Around Town gallery, StepNotes, a musical staircase, and the Sun Sprouts Fort in its outdoor garden.

Marbles also will be able to share details on some improvements to some popular existing spaces in the next few weeks.

"While we're waiting for the big stuff, we’ll continue to refresh exhibits and do new things," Edwards said.

Edwards said the museum also is looking at ways to use the new space in the building next door even before big plans for construction or expansions are mapped out.

Marbles to stay open

There's a lot of uncertainty in the plans going forward, but Edwards said one thing is certain: Marbles won't close to make way for an changes, expansions or renovations.

"Any future expansion at Marbles is being driven by the need to stay open for the kids who play today," she said. "There might be a day or two here or there. But we are committed to growing our footprint at Marbles and staying open while it happens."

Marbles will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a special event from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sept. 29.

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