Whether or not Columbus discovered America, Baltimore went out of its way to thank him yesterday.
The city paid homage to Columbus by holding a parade in his honor, laying a wreath at his statue in Little Italy and dedicating a $164 million marine research center that is named for him -- which a dozen demonstrators protested was a waste of money.
The day began with the wreath-laying at the refurbished Christopher Columbus statue on President Street in morning ceremonies that brought out the Knights of Columbus and Sons of Italy.
About an hour later, government leaders dedicated the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration at Pier Six, with several of the state's top elected officials lining up to explain how the facility will be an economic shot in the arm.
Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, said that the center will help the U.S. compete with the Japanese in the emerging field of marine research and biotechnology.
"This is a tribute to Italian-Americans, and particularly to those in the Baltimore area and in Maryland," Mrs. Bentley said.
"As Columbus feared falling off the face of the earth, there are many fearsabout this project, as you can hear from afar," said Representative Thomas McMillen, D-Md.-4th, referring to the protesters audibly shouting slogans from nearby Pier Five.
The protesters said that they were concerned about taxpayer funding for the center at a time when the city, state and federal governments are in dire financial straits.
"It's like playing the stock market. We may or may not get our money back with this project, and now is not a good time to be taking such a gamble," said Anthony Promutico, 27, an auto mechanic who coordinated the demonstration.
But center supporters said yesterday that killing the project would be shortsighted because it would destroy any chance for long-term benefits, including the creation of high-tech jobs, increased Inner Harbor tourism and a healthier economy.
Similar criticism was leveled at the National Aquarium and at the Inner Harbor redevelopment -- two major attractions that have proved to be economic blessings, supporters said.
"There is a tension there that's going to exist for some time. But you can't bury your head in the sand. You've got to look ahead," said state Secretary of Economic and Employment Development Mark L. Wasserman, who spoke in the absence of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Governor Schaefer attended a political bull roast in Timonium late yesterday.
The parade finale to Columbus Day events brought the biggest crowd.
Several thousand people took advantage of sunny skies and 60-degree temperatures to watch the string bands, high school marching bands, mounted police, baton twirlers, fraternal groups, clowns and floats making up the 101st annual parade. The parade was billed as the nation's oldest in honor of the 15th century explorer.
The parade wound around the Inner Harbor, beginning at Key Highway and Covington Street and ending at President and Fleet streets at the edge of Little Italy.
Yesterday, it seemed, was a good day to be Italian in Baltimore -- or at least close to one.
"I'm not Italian, but I married one. That's almost the same, right?" said James Gay, who showed up at the parade wearing a beret with the red, white and green colors of the Italian national flag.
James Lazzati, who has uncles, aunts and cousins living near Milan and Genoa and returned last week from visiting them, said that the parade excites him each year because it brings his 10 children back to Little Italy, the neighborhood where he was born and raised.
"Sure I get excited. It brings back the family and that's always a very good thing," said Mr. Lazzati, 74, a retired businessman, former parade participant and a past president of Associated Italian American Charities of Maryland.
The parade included a vast array of sword-wielding Knights of Columbus and at least three replicas of the Santa Maria, the flagship on Columbus' historic voyage 499 years ago.
A Miss Nina, a Miss Pinta and a Miss Santa Maria, and at least three Columbus look-alikes were also there.
Salvatore Mastellone, one of the three costumed Columbuses, said, straight-faced, that playing the part was the fulfillment of a longtime fantasy.
"Oh, yeah sure, I've wanted to be Columbus since I was a little kid," said Mr. Mastellone, of Carney.
"I guess you could say, it's just a lot of fun," said Mr. Mastellone.
Thomas D'Alesandro III, the parade chairman, said yesterday's event was fun, but "is nothing" compared to the celebration being planned to mark next year's 500th anniversary of Columbus' first trans-Atlantic voyage.
"We're going to leave no stone unturned," Mr. D'Alesandro vowed.