By Michael Morton
At the end of an alley off Jamaica Avenue in Queens Village, in a converted brick warehouse thought to have once hosted a meat processing plant, there now exists a world of paper airplanes and puppet shows, a place where a kid can be just a kid.
“It’s really a safe place for children to come and play,” first-time businesswoman Romaine Johnson said last week about her Citi Kids Playroom, which opened in March and is located near 212th Street.
For a $5 admission, youngsters, usually ranging from toddlers to 14-year-olds, receive two hours of play time in the center. The fee gives them access to a two-story open space large enough for a towering custom-built tunnel slide and ball pit of the type normally found at McDonald’s Funlands, as well as to computers and video game consoles. Arcade games and an air hockey table cost extra, as quarters must be pumped in.
Johnson, a grandmother from nearby Jamaica, came up with the idea for her business after planning birthday jaunts for her children and, later, her grandchildren to faraway play centers in Nassau County or Middle Village. It occurred to her to open one closer to home, one that could be used both by her relatives and by the larger southeast Queens community and where costs would be kept affordable.
Her new center would also fill a need in the area by providing an age-appropriate spot with engaging activities, especially for kids with a single parent or whose mom and dad both worked.
“There’s just not a lot for children to do now that’s in a wholesome environment,” she said of the void she hoped to fill.
An employee for both Head Start programs and mental health facilities for 20 years, Johnson kept her vision in the back of her head for some time, reading Crain’s business magazine and clipping articles on advice for budding entrepreneurs and on programs for women and minorities. In 1999 she sought help from the Small Business Development Center at York College in Jamaica, a program that helped her formulate a business plan and secure a loan.
She combined that loan with investments from family members and then went through the arduous task of being accredited by the proper agencies and finding an appropriate space. She eventually settled on the old warehouse, which she speculated once housed a meat or fish processing company because of its tall ceiling.
During the process of establishing her business, Johnson studied the demographics in the area and the operations of the other play centers. She also ran focus groups with kids and made a surprising discovery: Video games were not the No. 1 request.
“They said they really wanted things they could use their imagination with, things they could control themselves,” Johnson said.
In addition to the video games, her site offers arts and crafts and activities such as paper-airplane-making and puppet shows, as well as help with homework. With a small staff consisting of Johnson’s husband, two daughters and two grandsons plus six other friends, Citi Kids Playroom gives children more personalized attention, Johnson said.
“Because we’re small, we’re able to tailor our activities to the children,” she said. “There’s an opportunity for children to explore their own interests.”
Though kids are sometimes dropped off and require staff supervision, Johnson said the facility is a play facility and not a day care. On a given day she may get up to 20 kids or as many as 60 if an area day care brings its kids for some play time. She has a number of such groups already lined up for the summer and said with their support she can sustain the $5 deal.
“It’s looking good,” she said, noting that her contacts and referrals were increasing. “We’re growing slowly as the word gets out.”
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.