FARMINGTON — Farmington Underground owners Joe Musumeci and Mary Ellms stood among faded gravestones in the historic Center Burying Ground while they described the treasure hunt that they have developed in response to the escape room’s forced COVID-19 closure. 

“It’s part scavenger hunt, part puzzle hunt, part just walking around looking at historical things. So almost like a guided tour,” Musumeci said.

The couple’s new activity is a radical shift from the setting of their dinosaur and dragon themed escape rooms which customers would rent for an hour and complete a series of challenges and puzzles in order to “escape” the room.

Farmington Underground owners Mary Ellms, left and Joe Musumeci stand next to their handmade prop made of wood, chicken wire, foam and plaster in their dinosaur-themed escape room. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

When Gov. Janet Mills announced a state of emergency in March, Musumeci was busy constructing a third escape room in the tucked away downtown building on Church Street. As quarantine dragged on, Musumeci lost steam to continue with the project as it became apparent that he would need to shift his business to less touch-oriented challenge activities.

“With not knowing when we’re going to open, we’re not sure if it makes sense to keep plowing ahead with this room if it’s going to be months before we’re able to reopen,” Ellms said while looking down at sawdust on the floor. 

Musumeci, who has designed scavenger hunts for Chester Greenwood Day and the Farmington Summer Fest, began to develop immersive, choose your own adventure style treasure hunts for both the towns of Farmington and Wilton. He spent two months developing the route of Farmington’s treasure hunt ensuring there were footpaths and sidewalks to each location, and researching the historical landmarks to write the storyline. 

For $20 a group, Musumeci will send an email that contains the treasure hunt instructions. People choose between two starting points and then follow a map to a landmark where they will have to search for a piece of missing information in the treasure hunt’s storyline.  Once the information is found, people fill in the blank space in the story and are then prompted to choose between two new destinations. This pattern continues until they reach their final treasure point.

Treasure hunt destinations include historical landmarks such as The North Church in Farmington. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

Wilton residents Jordan Shaw and Mary Wess have already completed the Farmington treasure hunt and recently tried their hometown version as well.

“Like their Farmington treasure hunt, this one is as much fun. The experience is filled with creativity and imagination and it’s a great way to get outdoors and explore the town of Wilton,” Shaw said in an email. “I would definitely recommend anyone give it a try, but in particular families who are looking for a great way to bond with each other while spending some time exploring Wilton.”

The treasure hunt offers some income while Musumeci and Ellms wait for an announcement from Gov. Mills office as to when stage three businesses can resume operating. Those classified in this stage include bars, personal services and outdoor recreation and have a tentative July 1 reopening date.

In the meantime, the escape room owners have been utilizing free business advising services at Dover-Foxcroft’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to navigate various COVID-19 government assistance programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. 

“I just felt like it was a good idea to get some extra help once this all happened. I had been thinking about it for a while, making a connection with them. And then I finally did, and it’s been great so far,” Musumeci said.

As Musumeci and Ellms worked with SBDC advisor Alison Lane, their innovative approach to adapting their business plan reached the attention of House Representative Jared Golden who chairs the Small Business Subcommittee. Golden pushed for funding in the CARES Act to be distributed to SBDC’s so that centers throughout Maine’s second congressional district could offer free, business advising during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Farmington Underground co-owner Mary Ellms holds her handmade prop, a golden dragon egg in the dragon-themed escape room. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

Golden invited the escape room owners to the subcommittee’s May 28, virtual forum to share their story with members of congress. 

 “It was a good experience for us to get our story out there and talk to people about it and share the perspective of a small business in a little town,” Musumeci said.

Congress members also asked the couple for feedback on how to improve legislation to support small businesses during the pandemic.

“They seemed to be really listening and asking good questions about what they could do to help,” Ellms said.

The Farmington Underground owners still plan on reopening their escape rooms while continuing to operate their treasure hunts which they also plan on expanding to the town of Dover-Foxcroft. The assistance they’ve received from the PPP loan has carried them through eight weeks of forced closure, but like many small businesses, they need additional government assistance and permission to reopen with modifications. 

Musumeci plans on redesigning his handmade puzzles to keep the touch-oriented activities to a minimum. The owners will also control the amount of people in the building by only allowing one group in an escape room per day. This modification will cut their daily business in half, but it will ensure that they can properly sanitize all surfaces before a new group enters the following day.

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