The decision by the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine to move from downtown Portland to Thompson’s Point could define the future of one of the city’s newest commercial developments and raises questions about what’s next for the museum’s longtime home in a historic building adjacent to the Portland Museum of Art.

The children’s museum has optioned a 1-acre site at Thompson’s Point and will build a three-story museum that doubles its current space. Construction will begin in 2018 and the museum is expected to move in by 2020.

Suzanne Olson, the museum’s executive director, announced the plans this week, saying in a news release that “the time is right to relocate to a new, purpose-built space with more room for our educational programs, interactive exhibits and theater performances.” She declined an interview request to discuss the cost and other aspects of the project in more detail.

Chris Thompson, president of Parallax Partners Inc., which is developing Thompson’s Point, said the museum will purchase the lot, but also declined further discussion of financial details.

“Generally speaking, we own and develop and lease and, in many cases, operate the real estate down here. In their case, being able to own the land and building was important for their business model. We were willing to do things differently for them,” Thompson said.

The children’s museum will construct a free-standing building among a cluster of existing buildings planned for the 30-acre, mixed-use development near Interstate 295 on the Fore River. A hotel also planned for the site will be built opposite the museum, across a pedestrian park that is part of the longterm development plan, Thompson said.

In the news release, Olson said the museum was in the early stages of a “major fundraising campaign to fund the new facility.” About 114,000 people visited the museum in 2016, and the museum expects to double that attendance figure in five years.

“The new location and facility will ensure that we can serve our community, members and visitors for decades to come,” she wrote.

The children’s museum owns its current building at 142 Free St., which has been its home since 1993. The museum was founded in 1976 and merged nine years ago with the Children’s Theatre of Maine, which dates to 1923.

The museum’s management team began looking for a new home in 2012, citing a need for more space and more parking. With 30,000 square feet, the new building at Thompson’s Point will be nearly twice at large as the Free Street building, with a dedicated theater and room for outdoor activities.

Portland Planning Director Stuart O’Brien said members of his staff had their first meeting with the project planners last week. The project likely will end up on a Planning Board agenda this spring, he said. Preliminarily, it looks like a good fit, he said.

“The zoning is appropriate, and I think the ability to have space for an outdoor component will be nice,” he said. “It’s very accessible, right next to the train and bus stations and right on the ocean. Considering the evolution of that area, the children’s museum is a nice cultural addition.”

Thompson’s Point hosts outdoor concerts in the summer and is home to the International Cryptozoology Museum, Circus Maine, an ice-skating rink, a distillery, a winery and a brewery. Thompson’s Point just opened the Brick South Event Center, and work continues on other parts of the development.

WHAT NEXT FOR CURRENT BUILDING?

Among the questions going forward is what happens to the museum’s current home. The building was constructed in 1830 as a theater and remodeled nearly a century later by noted Portland architect John Calvin Stevens. It served as the city Chamber of Commerce headquarters for many years.

The building is part of the Congress Street Historic District and the Spring Street National Register Historic District, said Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks. Any exterior alterations or additions are subject to review by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, Bassett said.

“It is a building that has had many lives in many different uses,” she said. “So I would expect that, if it were to change ownership, there would be a wide range of possible new uses for the building. The Historic Preservation Board has reviewed many projects to repurpose older buildings and has a long history of working with owners so that they can make the changes needed for the new uses while also complying with preservation guidelines.”

The building’s location next to the Portland Museum of Art has fueled speculation that the PMA might be interested in purchasing it. On Thursday, the museum skirted that question, offering instead a general statement from Director Mark Bessire: “The PMA is aware of the children’s museum’s plans to relocate, and commends everyone involved in the revitalization of Thompson’s Point, one of Portland’s most unique areas.”

In an interview last year, Olson told the Portland Press Herald that the sale of the children’s museum’s existing building is key to its future.

“Our building is our most important physical asset, which we have developed over the past 20 years, so we will be looking to get the most value we can when it’s time to sell,” she said. “We expect there will be a fair amount of interest in our building should we decide to move.”

Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits and a former director of Creative Portland, said news of the museum’s move to Thompson’s Point is encouraging, because it signals confidence in both the community and the economy.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for the city’s arts and culture community for sure. Anytime an organization feels it is in a position to take on an ambitious campaign to own their own space and build it the way they would like it is an exciting prospect,” Hutchins said. “We have seen over time that Portland has a rich cultural community that is able to sustain cultural activity even through tough economic times.”

The timing is good, she said, because Thompson’s Point has established itself as a destination for concerts, recreation and dining. A hotel is planned, as well as apartments and office space. The addition of a family museum adds another element to the development, she said.

“I think the children’s museum will benefit from the fact that there is already recognition in the community that cultural things are happening at Thompson’s Point. There is already an energy and focus out there,” she said. “It’s a space that has been begging for an iconic destination.”

A LONGTIME DREAM COMES TOGETHER

Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, also congratulated the children’s museum on its proposed move. “While the children’s museum moving out of downtown Portland is a loss for the Arts District, it is most certainly a wonderful step forward for the future of the museum,” she said. “Having accessible parking, more space and new exhibits should also result in increased visitation, which can only benefit the organization.”

Thompson sounded relieved Thursday. He has been chasing this part of the development since 2010, when he first heard that the museum was seeking a new home and before he purchased the land for Thompson’s Point. While he wishes it would happen sooner, he’s pleased that it is finally coming together.

“We’re supporting the children’s museum time line. We are very patient,” he said. “We have been at this seven years now. I think it’s important for them and for us to get it right.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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