Brian Mann sat down recently with Stephanie Ratcliffe. She's head of the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, which is now in its seventh season. The Wild Center has been forced to find its stride during a deep recession, and at a time when the village of Tupper Lake has been the focus of fierce debate over a proposed new resort. Ratcliffe says the museum is faring well, despite those complications, and has a new interactive exhibit opening this summer called Planet Adirondacks.
Each year, the Wild Center offers new things for visitors to see, touch and do when they visit. Stephanie Ratcliffe, the head of the Wild Center, explained that the new Planet Adirondacks exhibit takes real scientific data and makes it visually accessible to the general public. “It’s translating a lot of data that’s being collected at this very moment with satellites, and what our naturalists will do is create connections for people to understand weather. It’s how the prevalent weather patterns are interacting with coal plants in the Midwest and causing acid rain. So it’s kind of connecting the dot,” said Ratcliffe.
The Wild Center is currently in its seventh year, and Ratcliffe said, “None of us that work at the Wild Center can believe it’s seven years. It’s gone so fast. The first couple years were chaotic as you imagine, trying to sort of figure out how to run a major attraction like the Wild Center.”
Like similar attractions in the Adirondacks, the center has a short season. Most of its earned revenue comes in during the 12 weeks of the summer. “We worry like everyone else about the tourism market and things like that,” said Ratcliffe, who added that she was surprised at how integral a part of the community the Wild Center became. “What I didn’t really realize is how quickly we become really an anchor for tourism infrastructure that’s starting to sort of build and we’re part of that rebirth that’s happening in Tupper. People depend on us to do certain things now, whether it’s leadership around certain topics or those kind of things. So it’s that community-building.”
Some attractions and museums like the Wild Center have struggled over the past few years to communicate with an increasingly urban visitorship that is not as connected with the natural world. According to Ratcliffe, attendance at the Wild Center is exactly what early modelers told them to expect at this point in time. They had their highest visitation in their first couple of years in operation. Ratcliffe said, “We feel very fortunate that our sort of newness and, maybe because we’re seasonal, that that lasted for about three years, when often in an urban area, that only lasts one year.”
Museum attendance is down nationwide and internationally, says Ratcliffe. “I think that’s just a bunch of influences that are coming to bear, whether it’s the economy coupled with all the competition for leisure time,” she said. Ratcliffe and her colleagues have been closely watching this trend. However, in spite of this, she said, “We have a stabilized attendance we feel we can depend on.”
Philanthropy has also decreased as a result of the economy. The Wild Center is generating enough support to carry on, but Ratcliffe says that it is an ongoing part of their work. “Most people don’t realize what supports the Wild Center is about 60 to 65% philanthropic dollars,” she said. “That is a reflection of our very short season, and so it’s obviously a discussion with our board all the time, how to make sure we’re going to be sustainable. It’s an ongoing conversation.”
For the duration of the Wild Center’s operation, Tupper Lake has been the focus of attention with regards to a new resort, the Park Agency’s review and how to revitalize this community. “It’s very important that Tupper does find a way to build its tourism infrastructure,” said Ratcliffe. “If you consider us an anchor institution, and sort of that first one in on rebuilding that infrastructure, so it’s really important that there’s new things to do and new things to see.”
The Wild Center has declined to weigh in on the ACR debate since Ratcliffe says it is not the center’s role. She said, “Our role is to continue to be a science museum and to interpret what’s going on in the Adirondacks. We’re not an advocacy group. We don’t ever want to be that. We’re there to interpret the science.” In spite of facing pressure to take a stance in the debate, the Wild Center plans to remain neutral but to offer scientific perspective on the conversation.