3-ship museum given $120,000 to keep it afloat

January 05, 1995|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Another Inner Harbor tourist attraction has sprung a financial leak -- and Baltimore has thrown it a $120,000 lifeline.

City officials said the emergency payment was needed to keep the Baltimore Maritime Museum, a collection of three ships docked near the National Aquarium, operating until March 31.

"They're going into the down part of the year and they did not have enough resources to carry their staff over the next three months," said Michele Whelley, executive vice president for real estate and development at the Baltimore Development Corp.

"The alternative financially was to close them down for a two-three month period," she added. "But there's a great deal of expense with doing that."

The city's payment to the Maritime Museum, to be used for maintenance as well as salaries, follows the October closing of the U.S.F. Constellation. That Inner Harbor landmark needs millions of dollars in repairs, and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has appointed a panel to find a way to salvage it.

Jennifer L. Hevell, acting director of the Maritime Museum, said its situation is "absolutely not" analogous to that of the Constellation, because none of the ships under its care needs extensive repairs.

But she conceded that the Maritime Museum -- which operates the U.S.S. Torsk submarine, the Coast Guard Cutter Taney and the Lightship Chesapeake -- has suffered from declining attendance and revenue.

In 1989, when the Maritime Museum was run by the city Department of Recreation and Parks, attendance reached a peak of 238,000 visitors, she said. By 1992, when the city turned the museum over to a nonprofit group as part of its privatization effort, only 152,000 people visited. Attendance slipped to 124,000 in 1993, and "not quite" 100,000 last year, she said.

Meanwhile, money from ticket sales -- the bulk of museum revenues -- dropped from $400,123 in 1993 to $324,961 last year.

"When attendance dropped, income went right out the window," Ms. Hevell said.

The construction of the Christopher Columbus Center on Pier 5 contributed to the drop in attendance, she said. The museum was unable to improve lighting or signage because the city insisted that such changes be part of a coordinated master plan, she said.

But Ms. Hevell said the museum has never had enough money to develop interactive exhibits that might attract repeat visitors to the three ships, which are leased to the city by the U.S. Navy, state of Maryland and National Park Service.

"We haven't had the money to do the flashy kinds of exhibits yet," she said.

In addition to making the $120,000 payment, which was approved by the Board of Estimates last month, city officials are helping the museum develop a long-range plan. That could include an annual operating subsidy.

Ms. Hevell hopes an annual city subsidy might help -- at least for a couple of years. "The idea is to build a critical mass that allows the museum to become self-sustaining," she said. "We're not looking for perpetual funding."

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