Visitors center on city's agenda


September 09, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

When Baltimore's tourism ambassadors announced plans last week to create a new visitors information center near the Inner RTC Harbor, they did so with a sense of urgency.

Since early 1990, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association has run a 2,000-square-foot visitors center on the first floor of the Marsh & McLennan Building at Pratt and Howard streets. But the lease there will expire late next year, and the city has no replacement lined up.

The convention association has been allowed to rent space in the Marsh & McLennan building for $1 a year under a five-year agreement with Stone & Associates, the local firm selected by the city in the 1980s to recycle the cast-iron-fronted building. RTKL Associates designed the space free of charge to the city.

If the visitors center wants to renew its lease, it will have to pay market rates of approximately $30 per square foot, according to Wayne Chappell, head of the association. Mr. Chappell said he plans to notify Stone & Associates next month that the visitors center can't afford to stay at the current location and will move when its lease is up. As a result, except for an Inner Harbor kiosk, "we will have no visitors center after October 1994," he said.

The Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment and Culture (McTEC), formed last month to stimulate new opportunities for tourism in Baltimore, listed the creation of a full-blown visitors center as one of its top priorities.

McTEC Chairman Leonard Sachs said the group does not want merely to replicate the current facility, which provides walk-in information about local tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants and events. A paid staff of nine and 50 volunteers also handle between 4,000 and 5,000 requests for information by phone.

Instead, he said, the group wants to create a freestanding structure that will be a destination in itself, a multimillion-dollar orientation center that will help generate excitement about the city and state, as well as providing information about individual attractions and events.

Mr. Sachs said that a new visitors center could be a boon to businesses and attractions that people don't see just by walking around the Inner Harbor, such as the Baltimore Zoo and the Walters Art Gallery. And he noted that it would benefit area residents as well as out-of-towners.

He added that a key element could be a professionally produced orientation film about Baltimore and its renaissance. "We have an important story to tell," he said.

The need for a new visitors center was also underscored in a marketing report by Hammer Siler George Associates. "A permanent, convenient and highly visible visitor information center will improve the visitor's stay in Baltimore, thus prompting longer stays, more return visitors and favorable word-of-mouth advertising," the consultants said. "Currently . . . visitors are often unaware of the full range of museums, attractions and amenities the city has to offer."

Mr. Sachs said that members of his group have no preferred location, except that they want it on the harbor front. "The leading candidate is a site in front of Harbor Court [at Light and Lee streets], on the west shore of the Inner Harbor. But no one has been hired to look at that yet."

In 1986, the city commissioned the architectural firm now known as Schamu Machowski Doo & Associates to design a $400,000 visitors center for the west shore just south of Harborplace, but never proceeded with construction. Before that, a developer proposed a visitors center for the old Wholesale Fish Market, which later became a bar mall.

Architect Peter Doo, who has since opened his own office, said the quickest solution would be for the city to dust off the plans it commissioned in the 1980s. The final design, which was put on display at Meredith Gallery on Charles Street, picked up the lines of Harborplace's Light Street pavilion. "Our drawings were ready to be sent out for bid, but the city decided not to go ahead for a variety of reasons," Mr. Doo said.

HarborView opens

More than 3,000 guests are expected to attend the invitation-only grand opening of 100 HarborView Drive, the $100 million first tower of the HarborView condominium community near Federal Hill, starting at 5 p.m. today. Initial buyers of the residences, priced from $160,000 to more than $1 million, are expected to begin moving in by early October.

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