Drop in visitors prompts layoffs at Constellation

June 21, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported the number of carpenters and riggers laid off from their jobs caring for Baltimore's sloop-of-war, the Constellation. Three out of four members of the full-time maintenance crew lost their jobs because of declining admissions.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

Forlorn-looking without its masts and rigging, Baltimore's 141-year-old sloop-of-war Constellation is being bypassed by tourists visiting the Inner Harbor. The revenue slump has prompted the layoff of nearly all of the ship's maintenance crew.

Paid adult admissions sank to 3,375 during May, down 62 percent from the 8,914 who came aboard in May of last year, operations director Len Schmidt said.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Last week, responding to the lost income, Mr. Schmidt laid off the ship's four remaining full-time carpenters and riggers, themselves the remnant of a seven-member, full-time crew that had maintained the ship until a few years ago.

"There was no money coming in, at least not enough to make the payroll," Mr. Schmidt said.

He suspects that the missing masts and rigging are part of the problem. They were removed in March in response to winter damage, decay and safety concerns. But the ship's admissions decline began at least a decade ago, with annual admissions falling by more than half since 1982.

May admissions have dropped 72 percent during the past two years. Sales, including souvenirs, totaled $28,832 last month, down from $72,004 in May 1992, Mr. Schmidt said. "You can't pay the insurance man and the crew on those kinds of figures," he said.

The ship relies on ticket and souvenir sales for nearly all operating revenues. Except for an annual city grant of about $24,000, it gets no regular support from governmental sources. The state and federal governments have provided substantial help with past restorations.

The layoffs should pose no immediate threat to the structure of the ship, said Gail Shawe, who chairs the board of the private, nonprofit U.S.F. Constellation Foundation. The board was recently reconstituted with the addition of 13 new members added at the request of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"Clearly that [the cutback] was done knowing that we are about to launch, as quickly as we can, major work on the vessel," she said. "And it did provide a vehicle for us to reduce expenses."

A Navy inspection last August found the Constellation severely deteriorated since its last major overhaul 14 years ago. Without millions of dollars in restoration work, the ship is thought likely to be reclaimed and relocated by the Navy.

Ms. Shawe has said she hopes the new board will have a restoration plan and financing strategy ready for presentation to the Navy next fall.

The Constellation traces its heritage to the U.S. Navy frigate Constellation, constructed in Baltimore in 1797 on orders from George Washington. In 1853, the aged frigate was hauled out and replaced by a new sloop-of-war that carried the old Constellation's name. That's the ship that has been in Baltimore since 1955. Naval historians have debated since the 1940s how much, if any, of the old ship's timbers were built into the new.

Hoping to attract a few more tourists while the ship awaits repairs, Mr. Schmidt has hoisted a banner at the Constellation Center asking visitors to "Pardon her appearance. U.S.S. Constellation is beginning major restoration. Open Daily."

A flagpole he purchased with his own money flies the U.S. flag again from the ship's stern.

The adult admission price has been cut, from $3.50 to $2.50. Senior citizens are admitted for $2; active military personnel and children ages 6 to 15 are admitted for $1. Younger children get in free. The ship is open from 10 a.m. until dusk.

The Constellation's admissions decline began soon after it returned to Pier 1 from its last period in dry dock in 1981.

From a high of 369,738 visitors in 1982, admissions fell to 204,852 in 1989. They picked up somewhat over the next two years after construction of the $923,000 dockside Constellation Center, which houses tourist services. But they slumped again after 1991.

Admissions fell 26 percent last year alone, from 225,522 in 1992 to 165,654 in 1993.

"Some of that . . . is indicative of the whole effort at the harbor and the need to promote it," Ms. Shawe said. "And I don't think the Constellation has done a good job of promoting itself. There needs to be constant vigilance in making sure people do come on board."

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