A few years ago, freelance writer and photographer John Adamski spent a few vacation days exploring the Adirondack Museum in Blue Moun-tain Lake and The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, which delve into the culture and history of the North Country.

“It got me thinking,” Adamski said. “I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we have a place like this that tells the story of the Finger Lakes?’”

A few years ago, freelance writer and photographer John Adamski spent a few vacation days exploring the Adirondack Museum in Blue Moun-tain Lake and The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, which delve into the culture and history of the North Country.

“It got me thinking,” Adamski said. “I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we have a place like this that tells the story of the Finger Lakes?’”

Upon returning home, Adamski wrote an essay for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine, pitching his idea.

Before he knew it, he was the board president for the Finger Lakes Cultural and Natural History Museum, an ambitious $30 million project slated to open in 2014 in Keuka Lake State Park in Yates County.

Adamski recently took The Leader on a tour of the picturesque 620-acre park, located on Bluff Point near Branchport, and outlined the vision for the museum.

The park has a beach, boat launch, playground, 350-site parking lot, 150-site campground and a trail system, so much of the infrastructure is already in place, Adamski notes.

“Rose Harvey, the commissioner of the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, is a big advocate of public-private partnerships,” Adamski said. “They have a  budget crunch, and she thinks the museum will be a boost for the park.”

The museum complex will feature displays that take visitors back 12,000 years, to when the Finger Lakes were carved by glaciers.

The gorgeous scenery, abundant fresh water and recreation opportunities provided by the

11 Finger Lakes (Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco) will be prominently featured.

The flora and fauna native to the region will also be highlighted, along with the people that have called the Finger Lakes home, including Native Americans, early white settlers, Amish and Mennonites.

Many of the displays will be interactive, Adamski promises.

“We’re going to redefine the word ‘museum,’” he said. “It won’t be looking at old sticks and bones, but a place where people are educated about their environment.”

One attraction will be a freshwater aquarium that will resemble a cross section of a Finger Lake.

“There will be different water temperature levels, with bass and perch near the top, and lake trout on the bottom,” Adamski said. “There will also be sections with invasive species, like the zebra mussel, and we also want to show human impact, like old tires and beer bottles.”

A tunnel will let visitors walk through the middle of the aquarium, he said.

Surrounding the museum will be “natural habitat enclosures” featuring black bears, red and gray fox, Seneca white deer, a bald eagle and other species native to the Finger Lakes. It won’t be a zoo with captured wild animals in cages, but a place for rehabilitated animals acquired with the help of the state DEC to roam in large areas, Adamski noted.

Others plans include a wildlife-viewing boardwalk going up through a wooded ravine.

There will be vineyards and a working 19th-century winery, so visitors can see how wine was made in the early days of the Finger Lakes wine industry, before electricity.
Also planned is a working Mennonite farm.

“There’s about 400 Mennonite farms in Yates County alone, and they are eager to showcase their way of life,” Adamski said.

Keuka Lake State Park was selected as the museum site after a list of 19 possible locations was slowly whittled down. The other finalist was Seneca Lake State Park in Geneva.

For now, the base of operations is the former Branchport Elementary School, which museum officials bought this year for $200,000. It’s office space for Adamski and the two other full-time staff, project director Don Naetzker and marketing director Natalie Payne.

Eventually, the 17,000-square-foot school will be renovated and made into the Finger Lakes Research and Education Center, a satellite campus for the museum that will provide a facility for students from Keuka College, Finger Lakes Community College, Wells College, Cayuga County Community College and other schools to conduct a wide array of research related to the Finger Lakes.

For example, Adamski said, it will have a wood shop for building small research vessels, and a “wet lab” for aquatic studies.

As might be expected, the major obstacle in seeing the museum plans come to fruition by the targeted 2014 opening will be fundraising, Adamski said. But it’s not a pie-in-the-sky idea, he insists.

This year’s founders’ campaign is halfway to its goal of $1 million, with anyone who contributes $100 being recognized with an engraved brick when the museum is built. The money will cover the preliminary planning phases.

In 2012, museum officials will launch a capital campaign to begin raising the bulk of the roughly $30 million needed.

A handful of private donors with significant means have already committed their support, and there are state and federal grants available for such projects despite the tough economy, Adamski said.

As momentum builds, he thinks the museum will garner much wider support.

“They’ve had a good response to their fundraising efforts,” said Scott Griffin, CEO of the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center. “They’re doing all the right steps, getting their plans together, doing feasibility studies ... So when they go out and ask for money, they can show donors that yes, there is a real plan for this, it is going to make it, it is financially viable.”

Griffin said the museum has the potential to become a major regional attraction, and he estimated it would mean $10 million annually to the local economy.

“It’s going to be a huge draw, not just for Yates County, but for all the Finger Lakes area,” he said. “People have a genuine interest in the Finger Lakes, how they came to be, the stories that go with them. And to have a state-of-the-art, world-class museum, built in a beautiful area, that’s going to be fantastic.”

Mike Linehan, president of the Yates County Chamber of Commerce, concurs.
“Certainly it’s going to be a project that will bring additional visitation to the county, which will translate to additional spending, meals, gifts, admissions, overnight stays,” Linehan said.

“The one thing that’s really exciting is that it gives us a group tour destination, meaning the motorcoach industry, which we haven’t had before,” he added. “That’s a market we would love to be able to take advantage of, but we just haven’t had an attraction like this.”

Trafford Doherty is executive director of the other major museum on Keuka Lake, Hammondsport’s Glenn H. Curtiss Museum.

Since the Curtiss aviation focus is much different than what the Finger Lakes Museum will offer, Doherty doesn’t see the two museums - about 25 minutes apart - competing for visitors.

On the contrary, the Finger Lakes Museum would be another way to lure folks on a road trip to Keuka, he said.

“I don’t see this as being a threat to us. I think it will be a boon to the area if they’re able to do it,” Doherty said. “Of course, it’s a very expensive undertaking, and I’m not sure the economics will work out for them, but that remains to be seen.

“That having been said, I see it as a benefit to the area and certainly something to
complement our museum,” he added.

There’s a lot of buzz about the project in the northern Finger Lakes, Adamski says, and now the staff and board are trying to spread awareness across the southern Finger Lakes, in places like Corning, Watkins Glen and Ithaca.

The Finger Lakes Museum presented its first program - an education series on the restoration of the bald eagle and the preservation of Canadice and Hemlock lakes - in various locations this summer.

Museum staff have been in contact with the tourism agencies in all 14 Finger Lakes counties, and Adamski was planning tours for U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, state Senator Tom O’Mara and state Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, among others.

“There’s been excitement on every level,” Adamski says.