Theater pushed for Power Plant

FLOATING IDEAS FOR PIER 4

January 22, 1992|By Edward Gunts

Is there a Balloon World in Baltimore's future?

Or an Inner Harbor catering hall and crafts emporium? Or an off-Broadway theater? Those are some of the ideas that are being floated for the Power Plant on Pier 4, which has been vacant since the Six Flags Corp. closed its P. T. Flagg's nightclub and entertainment complex there two years ago.

Since then, officials for the city, which owns the building, have met with numerous groups to discuss the possibility of converting the three-building complex to everything from a Depression-era speakeasy to a children's museum or a high-tech telecommunications center. But, so far, they have been unable to find a proposal that is both acceptable and feasible.

As part of its search for new ways to add life to the cavernous Power Plant, the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public agency that oversees downtown development, has begun to explore ways to use the building on an interim basis, until a permanent use is found.

Honora Freeman, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., told members of the Urban Land Institute earlier this month that she is eager to find a temporary use for the building so it doesn't sit dormant while the city decides on a permanent use.

"We're looking for good ideas to create a temporary use this summer as we explore permanent uses," she said. "It's a Cadillac building for another attraction. Six Flags spent $45 million on that building and we want to identify an attraction that can . . . capitalize on that investment."

Ms. Freeman said she is not looking for one-day events -- such as flea markets -- but for a group or groups that could come in and use the building for a limited time with the understanding that they might have to move if the city finds a permanent use for the property.

Such a group must be able to use the building basically as it is and not make expensive modifications. But for the right user, she said, "it's a terrific opportunity."

One prospective tenant is Robert Kemp, president of Kemp Balloons of Glen Burnie. He wants to turn the power plant into Balloon World, a showcase for the giant helium-filled balloons his company makes for Christmas parades and the like.

Mr. Kemp said his 20-year-old company makes balloons into cartoon figures such as Olive Oyl, Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Tom and Jerry, and other subjects, such as the Baltimore Crab, and would like to have a location where they can be publicly displayed. He said the Power Plant would be an ideal spot because of its Inner Harbor location and 60-foot-tall ceilings, which could accommodate all but his tallest balloons.

"I think Balloon World would make it absolutely anyplace, but if the city is looking for something that would draw new people and hasn't been done before, this would get a lot of press" coverage, Mr. Kemp said. "It's not just for kids. There are people who grew up with these characters, at the Macy's parade. It'll appeal to anybody from 3 to 93,"

In conjunction with the Power Plant operation, Mr. Kemp said, his company would stage a daily parade of giant balloon figures around the waterfront. The goal, he said, would be to create "that extra element that ties the Inner Harbor together."

Bill Struever, president of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, said he is working with a local caterer, Lenny Kaplan, on plans to use the building's extensive kitchen facilities for catered events. He said he also has been working with Wendy Rosen, president of The Rosen Agency, which sponsors crafts-oriented trade shows across the country, and Hope Quackenbush, managing director of the Baltimore Center for Performing Arts.

Ms. Quackenbush's group expressed interest several years ago in opening an Off-Broadway theater inside the northernmost portion of the three Power Plant buildings, where a stage and seating for several hundred people already exists. It would be used to house small-scale productions.

Ms. Quackenbush said this week that she is "as interested as ever" in the project but first wants the city to have a master plan for using the remainder of the facility. "It's a good use for the harbor," she said. "That part of the harbor needs activity at night."

The Rosen agency, which sponsors the Buyers Market of American Crafts, wants to create a crafts showcase inside the Power Plant.

City officials launched a nationwide search in the late 1970s and early 1980s before awarding the Power Plant in 1982 to the Six Flags Corp., which opened an entertainment center there in July of 1985.

Complaining of lower-than-expected attendance and financial losses, Six Flags closed the family entertainment portion of the project Jan. 1, 1987, leaving open only its nightclub. But the nightclub-only operation violated the terms of the city's lease, which required Six Flags to operate during both the day and night. The building closed permanently at the end of 1989.

Ms. Freeman said she has no deadline for ideas and hopes to accommodate the plan for an off Broadway theater. "We are always open to ideas that would get this facility up and open again.' she said. "There's still time to do something this year.

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