As O&G Industries’ Corporate Secretary, Ken Merz is in demand. He’s hard to wrestle a block of time from, sometimes giving the impression he’s already half-way to the next meeting or visit or phone call on his agenda when you speak with him. Which makes it all the more interesting to see the other side of Ken Merz, outside of the Main Office and immersed in his passion.
After work or on weekends you’ll often find him picking his way through running, laughing six-year-olds, mulling over the next colorful project he might want to implement at the KidsPlay Museum he co-founded in downtown Torrington.
At the end of 2014 Merz learned that he’d been named “Person of the Year” by the Register Citizen, the paper serving much of Litchfield County.
Merz has served on many boards in the Torrington community, including the Warner Theater Board of Directors where he served as chair until 2013.
His nomination for “person of the year” came from colleague Brian McCorcmick who wrote, “Ken was instrumental as a board member… to help the Warner Theater become financially stable and be a central fixture in a plan to make Torrington a center for arts, culture and tourism….” McCormick added, “Even though the theater was an arts enterprise it needed to be run like a business and Ken set up a good business model.” Merz’s background – he holds engineering, law and accounting degrees — and his 44 years working with O&G helped him know how to steer the theater onto a much more stable financial course.
“I have never been a theater person in the sense of performing,” he explains. “But I’ve always been interested in the impact a theater has on the local community.”
With his former Warner energies available to refocus on a new adventure, Merz founded the Northwest Community Collaborative, Inc., a nonprofit created as the parent of the children’s museum in 2012. Its first purchase was a former bank building on Torrington’s Main Street, directly across from the Warner. Volunteers began transforming its dour interior into KidsPlay Museum, a vibrant space full of play and discovery stations. “Lots of us being theater people, we have a flair for colors. We do colors well,” he says.
Merz has his eye on an adjoining property, the former Quality Men’s Shop. When it is acquired and joined to the existing museum, it will add another 15,000SF to the KidsPlay footprint. “You need at least 12,000 square feet for a great museum,” he asserts matter-of-factly.
Merz ought to know. To-date he’s visited, photo- graphed and analyzed 55 children’s museums across America and in Germany and Japan, looking for those exhibits that really juice kids up. “There are lots of factors when you design an exhibit, but I ask, ‘What’s the fun factor? The best exhibits have an action and a reaction.” Merz points out one of the most popular stations at KidsPlay, sure enough with a cluster of pre-teens giggling as they try it out. Clear tubes about four inches in diameter are gently pressurized with air and loop this way and that up toward the ceiling. Little hands can stuff a scarf into an opening at the bottom and watch it zip its way to the top where it pops out to drift slowly down for them to catch.
He has gotten the place into the 341-member international Association of Children’s Museums. KidsPlay’s Executive Director is Matthew Tynan: “Unofficially this is Ken’s museum. From behind the scenes to the exhibits on the floor, he’s most responsible for it.”
Merz envisions the museum as an ideal place for social interactions, an attraction that will help make Torrington a go-to destination. Last year, in only its second year of operation, more than 20,000 kids and adults came to play and explore.
Ken Merz at KidsPlay, the children’s museum he co-founded in Torrington. Merz enjoys demonstrating the museum’s interactive exhibits, in this case kinetic sand.