Every year at this time, my family and friends always ask what I would like for Christmas. And for the last several years my answer has always been the same. I already have plenty of clothing, fishing tackle, and photo gear—and to be frank—at this stage in my life I’m really looking to get rid of things, not acquire more. But before I share my answer to that question, I want to tell you a story.
In 2008, Life in the Finger Lakes magazine published my article, “Showered with Ideas”, which introduced the notion of creating a new museum to showcase the cultural heritage and ecological evolution of the 9,000 square-mile Finger Lakes Region. (You can read that article at this link: https://www.lifeinthefingerlakes.com/finger-lakes-museum-proposal/.)
The article immediately ignited a grassfire of grassroots supporters who felt that the proposal had merit—and some even wanted to help make it happen. In less than a year, a board of trustees was established, a state-required museum charter was in place, a volunteer network was formed and a not-for-profit designation was approved by the Internal Revenue Service. The Finger Lakes Museum was off and running. I served as president of the board for the first five years.
Now let’s fast-forward 8 years. With $2 million in private donations and another $3 million in New York State grant funding, the Finger Lakes Museum purchased the vacant Branchport Elementary School from the Penn Yan Central School District and for the last four years has been working to transform the 17,000 square-foot building and its 13-acre waterfront campus into a premier tourism destination. The project was also recently rebranded as the Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium.
Starting a project like this from scratch does not come without its challenges—raising money is the foremost among them—but through the dedication of a committed board, hardworking staff, and tireless volunteers, significant progress has been made. All of the classrooms were removed, which required over a million dollars in asbestos abatement; a new insulated membrane roof has been installed; a new entrance drive and 100 new parking spaces are in place; and the entire campus itself has been landscaped and replanted with hundreds of native trees and shrubs.
Plans call for converting the building into an exhibit hall, combined auditorium/community event space, museum store, and administrative offices. Exhibits will follow a geological timeline that begins at a melting glacier and meanders along a cascading indoor trout stream through centuries of cultural and ecological evolution—from indigenous peoples to modern-day grape growers, winemakers, and Mennonite farmers.
The trout stream will feature live brown and rainbow trout and terminate at the point where the future main exhibit is planned to be built: The Finger Lakes Aquarium. This 150,000-gallon freshwater exhibit will geologically-replicate the cross-section of a typical Finger Lake. It will display the various species of fish that are native to the Finger Lakes as well as some of the nonnatives that have been intentionally or inadvertently introduced. An exhibit showing the impacts of invasive species such as zebra mussels and hydrilla will be included as well.
A radio and television studio is being planned to produce documentary programs that will include the history of grape-growing and winemaking, the restoration stories of the bald eagle and river otter, the return of the black bear to the Finger Lakes, Old Order Cultures—Amish and Mennonites—and many more. Some programs will be made available for educational use in classrooms throughout the region.
In addition, construction of the Creekside Center—the museum’s canoe and kayak livery located on Sugar Creek, which is a navigable tributary to Keuka Lake—was completed and opened for programming this year, and a Keuka Lake summer resident generously donated a fleet of kayaks and canoes. Another generous donation—16-acres of wetland known as the Townsend-Grady Wildlife Preserve, which is located at the juncture of Sugar Creek and Keuka Lake—is being developed as an interpretive wildlife viewing area in cooperation with the DEC.
So that’s my story. Now for my answer to the question above: For me, the best Christmas gift ever would be a donation to the Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium. You can make a secure online contribution at www.fingerlakesmuseum.org, or send a check if you prefer. Contributions in any amount are tax-deductible and the address is on the website. Thank you! And Merry Christmas!