Another Building Block for Tourism

December 30, 1993

If you don't like the weather in Baltimore, goes the old adage, stick around a few minutes, it'll change. Now virtually the same could be said for museums around the Inner Harbor: Stick around. Fairly soon, a new one will be proposed.

The most recent plans unveiled call for a $15 million state-run museum to celebrate African-American history and culture in Maryland. The proposed site is now a parking lot in Little Italy.

If it comes to fruition, this attraction won't lack for company. Just a few blocks down President Street, one of the nation's earliest railroad depots is being renovated into a Civil War-era transportation exhibit. Across Pier Six, the Christopher Columbus marine biotechnology research and visitors center is taking shape. Walk a couple blocks west and you'll pass sites for a children's museum, a Venetian-like canal with gondolas and a "virtual reality" sports center. And that's not to mention a "visionary art" museum being built, the expansion of the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway, the shift of the Babe Ruth Museum from the Ridgely's Delight neighborhood to Camden Yards and all the other existing attractions on "Museum Row."

A consultant once warned Baltimore that despite its billion-dollar visitor industry, the city was "missing valuable opportunities for achieving greater economic benefits from tourism." It is certainly trying to catch up now.

The proposed venture on African-American culture actually might work on several fronts. Maryland tourism officials this year began trying to capitalize on a "roots" theme by packaging the state's wide-ranging black cultural sites.

Certainly, the popularity of the new Holocaust Museum in Washington and the restored Ellis Island in New York proves that repositories of genealogical touchstones can be designed to educate and appeal to travelers, whether or not they're of the race or ethnicity being described.

The museum, if done well, would also add one more building block to the critical mass of attractions downtown. What makes the Inner Harbor work is that there is too much to see in one day; that's where the hotel and restaurant businesses make good.

Now the ball is in the court of the museum planning group to better define its concept, to ensure a quality attraction, to raise $3 million in private donations and to convince the General Assembly that $12 million in public money would be well spent.

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