Doug Engstrom, of Atlantic City, watches his sons, Jack, 5, and Zachary, 3, play in the firehouse section of the Jersey Shore Children's Museum in the Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township on Friday. The small nonprofit is closing Dec. 31, which may be permanent if enough money can't be raised for a new location.(The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

Ben Fogletto

Fifteen years after it began as a grassroots nonprofit, the Jersey Shore Children’s Museum is in danger of closing permanently with the demolition of the space it occupies in the Shore Mall.

The museum, which began on Fire Road and moved to the Egg Harbor Township mall in 2003, will close Dec. 31 and must vacate its space near the Motor Vehicle Commission office by the end of January.

Finding a new location has proved difficult because the nonprofit has always paid a nominal rental fee, founder Linda Szypula said.

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According to the nonprofit’s 2010 Form 990 tax return, the most recent available, its total expenses were $94,910, compared with $85,588 in revenue. That year, museum director Suzanne Gunther made $13,355.

With few alternatives available, Szypula said she’s trying to get the word out to the community that the museum is in danger of closing for good.

The museum will hold an event today to raise money to move and update its various hands-on exhibits, which include everything from a miniature basketball court to a mock grocery store and television studio.

On Friday afternoon, a number of parents were dismayed by the possible loss of the museum.

“They’d rather come here than Storybook Land,” said Jennifer Alfieri, 35, of Northfield, as she watched her two young sons play with dinosaurs and excavators in a sand trough. “It’s good for me because it’s freezing out.”

Alfieri, who has been an annual member since her 5-year-old son, Vinny, was born, said the museum is their favorite winter activity.

“I don’t know what there is to do,” she said.

Elsewhere in the museum, Doug Engstrom watched as his 5-year-old son, Jack, shuffled across the floor in a firefighter’s uniform, the black and yellow jacket reaching nearly to his ankles.

“It’s a great place to come, especially if it’s a lousy day outside or it’s too cold to run around,” he said.

Engstrom, 50, of Atlantic City, said he’s been visiting the museum since his 21-year-old daughter was a child. His children can spend hours there, he said, playing for 20 minutes or more at each station.

“There really isn’t much to do around here,” he said.

Szypula, an eighth-grade science teacher, said she got the idea for the museum back when she had young children of her own.

“I’d drive up to Lancaster to take my young kids to a hands-on museum,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘We need something like this in South Jersey.’”

While they have secured storage space for the museum’s exhibits in the interim, Szypula said she still needs to find a permanent location. Some of the exhibits also need updating with new technology, she said.

“I’m hoping if we can get word out,” she said. “I have to believe that people don’t realize the plight we’re in right now.”

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