From Pipe Dream to Reality

March 12, 1992

When plans for the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration were made public this week, the dramatic ribbed roof reminded some observers of a sea creature. But the design is no more dramatic than the dream behind this project -- or its importance for Baltimore.

In part because of the pioneering efforts of the University of Maryland's Rita Colwell, the United States enjoys a lead in marine biotechnology, a field with enormous economic development potential. Dr. Colwell heads the Maryland Biotechnology Institute, which includes the Center of Marine Biology (COMB). It will become a central feature of the Columbus Center when it opens in 1994. The center will also have a marine archaeology facility and exhibition spaces for students and tourists.

A project that once seemed little more than a fanciful pipe dream is nearing reality. Today, a budget committee in Annapolis begins consideration of a request for $17 million, the biggest chunk of the state's contribution to the $161 million project. Congress has chipped in $31.5 million, with more to come, and the state has already spent $1.68 million for design work. The city is making substantial contributions, most notably the valuable site on which the center will be built. Clearly, there is every reason for the General Assembly to approve the center's request.

The lead architect for the project is the Zeidler Roberts Partnership of Toronto. But the architectural and engineering team, announced yesterday, will include 40 percent participation from women- and minority-owned businesses; 60 percent of the total design fees will be earned by firms in the Baltimore-Washington region. That's good news, since architectural and engineering firms have been hard-hit by the recession. It will also give Maryland firms experience in servicing the biotechnology and life sciences industries, which could become one of the state's major growth sectors.

The Christopher Columbus Center is beginning to attract national attention, with scientific institutions such as the Smithsonian expressing interest in its mission and volunteering advice or help. All of this suggests that the Columbus Center can play a major role in the future prosperity of Baltimore. Even in bad economic times, it seems, pipe dreams can be wise investments.

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