As the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, 14-year-old son and two cats, Vanessa Gorman-Dow’s apartment in Keene is something of an indoor playground, and that’s the concept she’s toying with in a region she feels lacks safe, spirited recreation options inside.
Gorman-Dow is developing Break Free Indoor Activity Center, which she compared to businesses like Cowabunga’s in Manchester, Krazy Kids in Pembroke and Nuthin’ But Good Times in Merrimack, known as kids’ party or play centers.
Though still in its planning stages, she said she’d like to launch her business in Keene sometime next summer.
“My idea is for it to be bounce houses and have interactive inflatables, and what I mean by that is having a type of Twister board as an inflatable,” Gorman-Dow said as an example. “... [I want] games that bring in the entire family so you can play with a four-year-old, and you can play with your teenager, and then it can include mom and grandpa, so kind of [for] all ages.”
Other activities she’s seeking are tunnels, a rotating climbing wall and various multi-level climbing structures for kids to crawl through and scale. For older children, she’s interested in having a dedicated video-game center with PlayStation and Xbox game consoles, and for any age she wants to offer board games that could be checked out.
But the most prominent piece of equipment Gorman-Dow is aiming to include, which she called “unlike anything in the state,” is The Hive, a kids’ obstacle course designed by commercial playground equipment manufacturer Soft Play of Huntersville, N.C. The company says its course includes ropes, performance mats and ball obstacles as well as lights and a scoreboard to turn the course into a game, among other features.
Gorman-Dow said she takes her children, Isabella, 4, and Aiden, 14, to the play centers elsewhere in the state twice a month but finds the drive to be tedious for both her and her children. She hopes Break Free could not only bring the best aspects of those businesses to Keene but also serve as a new events option for Monadnock Region families.
”You’re spending almost three hours in a car and you’re at this place for two hours max,” Gorman-Dow said. “I know people from [Isabella’s] school drive to these places for birthday parties. We go to the Cheshire Children’s Museum, too, but parents try to switch it up.”
The idea came to Gorman-Dow on Isabella’s first birthday in February 2019. The name “Break Free” is much more recent — she created it during her involvement in this year’s Business Lab program at the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship — but it holds a lot of meaning for her.
The single mom of two says she is a domestic-violence survivor and serves as the housing-first advocate for the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention. MCVP is a Keene-based nonprofit serving Cheshire County and parts of Hillsborough County that offers crisis intervention and peer counseling to those affected by domestic and sexual violence.
”[The name] ‘Break Free’ felt like to me incorporated a family meaning, like break free out of the house, kind of going through the doors of these [play] centers and just letting loose and going wild,” Gorman-Dow said. “But then it also pulls in the domestic-violence survivor aspect: to break the cycle of domestic violence and to break free and empower yourself.”
Gorman-Dow is looking to donate $1 per every sale exceeding $10 to MCVP quarterly, and she also wants to open the doors of her proposed play center as a space for those affected by domestic violence to safely meet with advocates from MCVP.
”I think Break Free would give the mothers or fathers needing to flee a space to bring their kids where they can have fun and they don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “Then the survivor can sit and talk about their next steps or learn how we can help them, and it wouldn’t be an abnormal place for the other person to think why they’re there.”
Pricing for Break Free’s play space is currently planned to be set at $15 per child, with the first adult in a group that enters paying $5 and each additional adult in the same group paying $15, Gorman-Dow said. For admission including the video-game space in addition to the play space, admission increases to $25 per child, adults with no children, or $10 for the first adult in a group that includes kids. There’s no admission fee for children less than a year old.
Party fees are currently set for $250 for a party of 10 children, $350 for a party of 15 children and $450 for a party of 15 children. Gorman-Dow said those charges will provide parties with decorations and supplies and allow them a 90-minute reservation in a designated party room.
By next fall, she also wants to staff the play center with employees seeking to provide child care to introduce the option for parents to come and go while their kids stay and play, which would cost parents $20 total for the full day. She said she’s spoken with Sapling Acres Preschool of Sullivan, a fellow Business Lab participant, about having its staff run the program.
Gorman-Dow plans to launch a website by the end of December and is in the process of searching for an adequate location for Break Free, which ideally would be 10,000 square feet with a 30-foot ceiling. She anticipates a start-up cost of $350,000.
Gorman-Dow encouraged people to connect with her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org if interested in talking with her about Break Free.