The Building Blocks of FunDec 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
Maybe it’s the promise of fantasy—you can create anything from dragons to Rivendell to an X-Wing Starfighter—as well as reality—go ahead, build the Louvre! But kids like opportunities to inhabit different worlds, and nothing makes a young face light up at Christmas or a birthday the way that the sound of a LEGO set does when they shake that gift box.
At Empire Bricks, it’s not just the pint-sized who enjoy plunging their hands into that big bin of LEGO bits and pieces. Color, light, and an extraordinarily cheerful vibe pervade the 122-year-old former Erwin Town Hall at 117 W. Water Street in Painted Post on a fall evening. The place is teeming with people—there’s a Corning Chamber of Commerce-sponsored mixer introducing Matt and Juliet Towner’s aftermarket LEGO store, which is half of the ground floor space, and iCode Corning, a local STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) franchise that Matt and Juliet also own, which occupies the other half.
“I’ve always had something going on,” says Matt, who is precious metals manager for Corning Inc. and has had an online LEGO store since 2016. He says they looked on Market Street in Corning for a storefront, then noticed this building was vacant, and it had been for about ten years. But it had space—13,000 square feet—good bones, parking, and room for almost anything they could imagine. It even had a park at the end of the street, which was a plus for their kids, Ellie, who’s nine, and Abby, who’s eight.
When the couple, both lifelong Steuben County residents, began renovating the building, was there any discussion about using LEGO products (die-hard fans bristle at the use of “Legos,” Juliet cautions) in addition to, or instead of, the more traditional stone, brick, and mortar? Hmmm, probably not, but what fun to consider. The engineering department at Open University, a public research university in the UK, figured out that it would take 375,000 LEGO bricks stacked one on top of another to cause the bottom brick to collapse. That amounts to 11,781 feet, or over two miles of LEGO bricks. Even so, probably better to have the LEGO pieces inside the building, right? So that’s what you’ll find. Lots and lots of pieces, along with LEGO sets, LEGO minifigs (miniature figures), even an assembled LEGO Titanic (over 9,000 pieces)—just an awesome abundance of all things LEGO.
Juliet, who is project art director for Ministry Brands, a company that uses technology to help purpose-driven organizations like churches and nonprofits, explains that, “We are not directly affiliated with LEGO, but we do have one wholesale distributor with limited inventory. The majority of what we sell are aftermarket items.” They buy and sell only genuine LEGO products; they also offer set evaluations and will order missing parts, say, for the enthusiast wanting all 5,922 pieces that make up the LEGO Taj Mahal.
Over at iCode, in three bright, glass-walled classrooms, kids are learning computer basics, programing, web design and development, game design and development, cybersecurity, AI, 3-D printing, and soft skills such as problem solving, creativity, leadership, and collaboration. iCode, a nationwide franchise with seventy sites, was founded in 2015 by Abid Abedi as an after-school program teaching coding and soft skills via a martial arts-style belt system. Each belt is based on mastering the skills of the previous lessons. There is no homework, however. (Can’t you hear the collective cheer?) Classes are onsite, two hours per week, typically run about nine months, and are instructor-led. There are, in addition to after-school programs, half-day, full-day, and three-day camps.
“We can run separate camps at the same time,” Matt says, noting there were twenty-three over the past summer.
iCode is also the place for game nights, birthday parties for current students and up to twenty friends, and you can book a free trial class.
As for the rest of the building, remodeling and renovations are ongoing. There will be two Airbnbs and a couple of efficiency apartments on the third floor, living space for their family on the second floor, and a large area for storing and sorting all those LEGO pieces. Phase II is already in the planning stages and will include a patio on the roof and a private theater in the basement.
“We want to expand to include a play area for kids, birthday celebrations, and adult get-togethers,” Matt says. They’re already hosting two or three parties every week at iCode and discussing adult options—bourbon and bricks anyone? At the moment, however, the focus is on the Empire Bricks and the iCode floor. And that’s all been good.
“The support from the community has been amazing,” Matt says.
Some of that support has come from Chemung Canal Bank and from the Southern Tier’s economic development entity—REDEC/RRC. George Miner, REDEC president, enthusiastically characterizes the Towners’ endeavors as “an interesting project,” one that “is kind of showcasing some of the projects we’re working on.”
Though Empire Bricks is a new endeavor, LEGO toys have been around a while. They were first manufactured in Denmark in 1949. The name is derived from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning play well. The iconic minifigs were first produced in 1978. The first LEGO store opened in Sydney, Australia, in 1984. The largest LEGO store is in Leicester Square, London. There are LEGO amusement parks all over the world. If you can’t make it to any of those places, however, Empire Bricks is a great option nearby. The store is open Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call or text (810) 280-7514, find them on Facebook, or visit empirebricksny.com for more information.
To find out more about iCode, visit icodeschool.com/corning128, find them on Facebook at iCode Corning, or call (607) 599-1599.