Donation boosts museum

March 04, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's fledgling effort to build a $30 million children's museum downtown has received its first major infusion of private funds -- a $3 million donation from NationsBank.

The money will be used to help convert the former Brokerage retail and office center at 34 Market Place to an educational attraction expected to draw 400,000 visitors a year.

The museum -- tentatively called the Baltimore Children's Museum -- is a key element in the city's strategy for revitalizing the east side of downtown.

The city also plans to use upper-level office space in the largely vacant Brokerage complex to establish a national children's center -- a potential magnet for government agencies, charities and other groups that address children's issues.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. William Donald Schaefer were scheduled to join bank officials on Market Place at 10 a.m. today to celebrate the contribution.

"NationsBank's gift is evidence that our vision of a world-class children's museum as one of the newest Inner Harbor attractions and community resources is becoming a reality," Mr. Schmoke said.

The contribution is the largest donation ever made by NationsBank, a large regional banking company that acquired Maryland National Bank last year.

It is a sign that the North Carolina-based corporation is committed to supporting local causes as Maryland National has done in the past.

"The gift is overwhelming because the needs of today's children are overwhelming," said R. Eugene Taylor, president of NationsBank Mid-Atlantic. "We have done our best to make a large dent."

Susan C. Keating, president of NationsBank Maryland, is a member of the children's museum board.

"This request was unique, the timing was perfect, and it matched our philosophy towards education, work and family," she said.

The museum will occupy 80,000 square feet of the 260,000-square-foot Brokerage. It will consist of more than two dozen low-rise buildings linked by a central arcade, along with a freestanding building that now houses Bennigan's Restaurant.

The Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public agency that guides downtown development, acquired the Brokerage last year for $5 million after a private developer defaulted on bank loans.

Mr. Schmoke has made funding for the downtown museum and related children's center a high priority of his administration.

The city is seeking $5 million from the state during the current legislative session to help pay for construction -- $3 million in fiscal 1995 and $2 million in fiscal 1996.

The bank's contribution represents the private money needed to match the first $3 million from the state. "We are thrilled and grateful to be the recipient of such magnanimity," said Beatrice Taylor, the museum's executive director.

In recognition of the gift, city officials are renaming the public space at the entrance to the proposed museum NationsBank Plaza. They also are dropping the name Brokerage in favor of 34 Market Place.

Aimed at children aged 2 to 12, the children's museum is being planned by the Baltimore Development Corp. and a local nonprofit group that includes representatives of the Children's Museum at the Cloisters in Brooklandville.

Their plan is to open the downtown museum by 1997 -- the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's incorporation -- and to phase out the museum at the Cloisters.

Janet Marie Smith, chairman of the children's museum board, said that if the state funds are approved, the group will have raised $8 million of the $19 million needed to complete construction. Other funds will be sought from foundations, private donors and federal grants.

The group also is trying to raise $6 million for an endowment and other expenses. The $30 million price tag includes the city's $5 million site-acquisition costs.

With $300,000 in seed money from the Abell Foundation, the museum board has assembled a team of consultants that has begun design work. Preliminary plans call for the museum to be divided into six "exhibition spheres" representing key areas that shape a child's life -- nature, science, emotions, health, creativity and social interaction.

Dr. Taylor said the planners are looking for alternatives to the name Baltimore Children's Museum to better reflect the project's scope.

"It's not just for Baltimore, it's not limited to children, and it won't be a typical museum, so we're open to suggestions," she said.

"We hope we can be as creative about the name as anything else."

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