After months of negotiations and years of speculation, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine sold its longtime downtown building at 142 Free St. to the Portland Museum of Art on Tuesday for $2.1 million, clearing the way for its move to a new space at Thompson’s Point and giving the art museum flexibility for expansion.

The museums announced the sale in a joint news release Tuesday afternoon, closing the loop on a real estate transaction that many observers assumed was a forgone conclusion because of the physical proximity of the cultural institutions. The children’s museum is nearly adjacent to the PMA, separated by just a few feet near Free Street.

Chris Dougherty, president of the board of the children’s museum and theater, called the sale “an exciting and generational change for both organizations” and said it represents the next step in the museum’s strategic plan to increase its cultural impact in southern Maine with its move to a new building at Thompson’s Point. Proceeds from the sale will go toward construction of the new building and its exhibitions. A capital campaign to raise the balance will be announced in the coming months, said Julie Butcher Pezzino, the children museum’s executive director.

“It’s an exciting and mutually advantageous opportunity for both organizations, and it’s a great story for city of Portland,” Butcher Pezzino said in an interview. “Certainly, the Portland Museum of Art was the ideal purchaser, in our minds, of this building. It keeps Congress Street as a thriving art corridor and is another sign of progress to make Thompson’s Point a family-friendly and public transportation-friendly hub for creative activity.”

The children’s museum will announce the public phase of a $13.75 million capital campaign soon, Butcher Pezzino said. The “quiet phase” of the fundraising campaign “continues to go exceedingly well, and we feel confident about where we are. We are excited to invite the entire community into that process very soon.” She declined to say how much the museum has raised so far.

The sale closed Tuesday afternoon. Serious negotiations began in the summer. The building was originally listed for $3.4 million, and Butcher Pezzino said the museum had multiple offers.

Peter Harrington, a partner with Malone Commercial Brokers, said the sale price of about $109 per square foot is reasonable, given the unique nature of the building and its lack of parking. “It’s a no-brainer for the (PMA),” Harrington said. “They are a likely buyer.  It lends itself to what they want to do with it. It’s a good deal for them, but it’s a reasonable price.”

The sale means the children’s museum and theater can move forward with initial site work in preparation of its new building at Thompson’s Point. Butcher Pezzino said ground-level remediation work will begin soon at the construction site. The museum has about $700,000 earmarked for site remediation, including a $500,000 Brownfields grant that it received last year to clean up hazardous materials left over from the days when the site was home to railroad yard.

“People will start to see some activity, and we are working out the full construction timeline,” she said.

The museum does not have a ground-breaking date, “but it’s certainly in discussion. The timetable has not been solidified,” she said, adding that the original hope of occupying the building by late 2020 is ambitious. “I think early 2021 is what it will be potentially.”

A rendering of the new Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine at Thompson’s Point. The children’s museum sold its downtown building to the Portland Museum of Art for $2.1 million. Image courtesy of Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine

As part of its sale agreement with the PMA, the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine will stay in its current location rent-free for up to 20 months. It purchased the Free Street building in October 1991 and opened in 1993. The children’s museum was founded in 1976 and merged with the Children’s Theatre of Maine in 2008.

The new building will face Interstate 295. The museum plans to construct a contemporary building with lots of windows and natural light. Butcher Pezzino called it “playful, an attractive building that will become a beacon for Thompson’s Point in general.”

The children’s museum and theater attracts about 110,000 visitors annually and operates with a budget of about $1.4 million. Butcher Pezzino said she expects visitation will double at the new site, in part because of higher visibility and its location near a regional hub of public transportation. The budget will increase, as well. The museum employs about 20 people, most of them full-time. The staff will be larger at the new site, as well, although Butcher Pezzino couldn’t say yet how much.

With approximately 30,000 square feet, the new building will nearly double the size of the existing building and will include a dedicated theater space with 100 seats and more room for interactive exhibitions that focus on science, technology, engineering and math, as well as arts and culture, Butcher Pezzino said.

Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, said the museum’s purchase of the building next door was “a perfect arrangement” because it enables the children’s museum to move and gives the PMA options as it considers its future. He said the PMA board has made no plans for the newly acquired building. Because the children’s museum can remain in its current location for up to 20 months, the PMA has time to incorporate the building into its long-term campus master plan, which was drawn up in 2014.

The sale gives the Portland Museum of Art ownership of a sizeable chunk of real estate between Spring and Free streets. In addition to the Payson Wing, which opened in 1983, the PMA owns the McLellan House and Sweat Galleries, which are attached to the Payson building, as well as the free-standing Clapp House, which fronts Spring Street, and a surface level parking lot, also on Spring Street. The Clapp House is currently empty and not being used by the museum.

The purchase of the building at 142 Free St. also gives the PMA a larger presence on Free Street and Congress Square and enables the museum to focus its plans for growth and expansion in that direction, Bessire said.

“We are excited about the future of Congress Square, and we want all our attention focused on the square,” he said. “This gives us such flexibility. We can now really start thinking how all those pieces fit in a paced growth for the future. With the extent of growth in Portland, it’s important to stake out our neighborhood. There is development coming from all areas and in all directions.”

The children’s museum and theater will not change its mission in its new location, but will have more opportunities to reflect regional culture, habitat and ideas, Butcher Pezzino said. “The trend in children’s museums across the country is to design a museum around the place where it’s located. Our museum will be very Maine. At the new museum and theater, we will design it thinking about Maine and what it means to live in Maine, visit Maine and be a part of a Maine community.”

Sharon Shaffer, a national consultant in early learning in museums, said the most successful children’s museums today reflect their community and look outward into the world. She said a move to a new building will allow the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine to incorporate new developments in early learning into its exhibition space and programming, both physically and conceptually.

“Another trend is building awareness of global issues, ideas like social justice, climate change and cultural diversity,” said Shaffer, who was founding director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. “A children’s museum should reflect its own community, balanced with exposing children to a more global society.”

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