Offer to turn Power Plant into offices raises questions on Inner Harbor plan

August 04, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Timothy J. Mullaney contributed to this article.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision this week to offer the Pier 4 Power Plant to Alex. Brown & Sons raises questions about Baltimore's development strategy, which for 20 years has been devoted to making the Inner Harbor the state's premier tourist destination.

Many civic leaders applauded the mayor for acting decisively to keep the prominent investment firm from leaving the city and for showing a sense of urgency about putting the long-dormant, city-owned landmark to productive use.

They say the Schmoke administration should do all it can to keep Alex. Brown in the city -- even allowing the former power generating plant to be converted to offices, if that's what it takes.

But others, primarily in the tourism and convention industry, urge the city not to lose sight of the need to keep building up the Inner Harbor as a magnet for tourists and conventioneers. To use a such prime parcel for anything else, they say, defies logic.

They prefer a $32.5 million sports-themed entertainment center proposed by Sports Center USA, a local group that lost its exclusive rights to negotiate with the city when they expired on July 31.

"I was disappointed," said Wayne Chappell, executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "There's so much vacant office space in Baltimore. There are even vacant lots where offices could be built. I think the waterfront ought to be reserved for uses that would generate additional visitor traffic to the Inner Harbor."

Mr. Chappell said he understands the importance of keeping Alex. Brown but is concerned that city redevelopment officials are straying from a long-standing strategy of ringing the Inner Harbor with public attractions rather than office space.

"This is a real departure from the past," he said. "Does that mean the [Pier 6] concert tent will be taken down next to make way for an office building? What kind of precedent does this set?"

Michael Whipple, general manager of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, said the Sports Center would draw out-of-town dollars and continue the development momentum established by Harborplace, the aquarium and other attractions.

"Tourism [is] a billion-dollar industry for downtown Baltimore," he said. "One more downtown office building isn't going to add to that billion dollars. If it's a tourist attraction, it would add."

The Sports Center team, headed by Lynda O'Dea, invested two years and nearly $2 million to develop plans for a multi-faceted tourist attraction that would simulate sports experiences, using virtual reality and other technologies. Working with Capital Cities/ABC Inc., the developers predicted the attraction would draw 1.5 million to 1.8 million visitors a year.

Mayor Schmoke said that the Sports Center group did not satisfy all of the city's requirements, including unconditional financing, and that he was anxious to see something happen inside the Power Plant. The 1901 brick edifice has been vacant since 1990, when the Six Flags Corp. closed the remnants of a $40 million entertainment complex that opened in 1985.

One day after the Sport Center's negotiating rights expired, the city offered Alex. Brown a 60-day exclusive negotiating contract to study the feasibility of converting the Power Plant to a new headquarters.

As of late yesterday, company officials had not disclosed whether they would accept.

Chief Executive Officer A. B. Krongard disclosed this spring that Alex. Brown is seeking a site where it could establish a new headquarters and that the Power Plant is one property he has toured.

Founded in 1800, the company has about 800 downtown employees spread over half a dozen locations. Mr. Krongard has said he is not ruling out the possibility of moving from Baltimore altogether when its current leases expire in 1997.

The mayor's decision to offer the Power Plant to Alex. Brown drew support from people not in the tourism industry.

"We need Alex. Brown to stay in Baltimore City if we have to put them in the aquarium," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "It is an important international company, born and bred in Baltimore. I thoroughly support the offer."

Robert C. Embry Jr., head of the Abell Foundation and a former city housing commissioner, agreed.

"If that is what's necessary to keep Alex. Brown downtown, it's a great idea, because I think it would be disastrous for Alex. Brown to move out of downtown.

"A public attraction has been tried in the Power Plant, and it failed," Mr. Embry said, referring to the Six Flags amusement center.

"Another group has tried and apparently not been successful in obtaining funding. So it's not as if the city didn't try to find an entertainment-oriented use."

The Sports Center group was selected in 1992 over six other bidders, who responded to a request for proposals from the Baltimore Development Corp. The rejected ideas ranged from an ethnic heritage museum to an off-Broadway theater.

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