Why Save the Constellation?

January 21, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

The U.S.F. Constellation, be it a frigate built here in 1797 or a sloop-of-war using the old name and a timber or two built in 1853, is a major symbol of Baltimore.

The Constellation is the silhouette of Inner Harbor revitalization. It is a sign of self-respect, a statement that Baltimore counts for something.

It may not be as important in these respects as Fort McHenry, but its loss -- a realistic possibility -- would be a great setback.

A void would be created, which would hardly be relieved by the continued presence of the two-story ticket pavilion, built in 1990 on Pier 1, as the permanent legacy of the Constellation Foundation after the ship had vanished.

It is easy to see how important the Constellation is to the Inner Harbor. Not just because its present dismasted condition is so dispiriting.

Pier 1, the Constellation Pier, was designed to accommodate the ship in the prime location of the park and promenade. The Inner Harbor renewal was, visually, designed around the U.S.F. Constellation. The pier accommodates tour boats as well, but was created for the Constellation.

The Constellation Foundation board, which Mayor Schmoke reconstituted under the leadership of Gail Shawe last year, is grappling with survival. The Navy came forth with only $265,000 for inspection and stabilization from a $1 million fund that Congress had appropriated for two historic vessels.

A few principles probably must inform any lasting solution:

1. The Constellation is a value to everyone who sees it -- from the promenade, from cafes in Harborplace or other harborside eateries, from high-rise offices and from boats bobbing in the harbor -- and not just to those who go aboard.

So while a sufficient revenue stream to sustain the ship might never be realized from admission fees, the Constellation deserves support from businesses and revenue-producing nonprofit institutions to which it attracts visitors.

These include four waterfront hotels, Harborplace and its tenants, other cafes and restaurants, three residential condominiums selling views of the Constellation, tour-boat operators, water taxis, horse-cab operators, the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, the embryonic Columbus Center, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the Port Administration and its trade-oriented tenants clustered on Pier 2 for a great view of the Constellation.

So it would be fair and reasonable for ongoing subsidy of the Constellation to be a routine cost for these and others to share, whether voluntarily or on some mandated arrangement like the Downtown Partnership. The loss of the Constellation would be their acute loss.

2. The Constellation and the harbor it represents are part of the psychic pride and economic support not of the City of Baltimore and not of the State of Maryland, but of the Baltimore metropolitan area. People living all over this region visit the harbor, enjoy it, invest in it, work there and take pride in it.

There is no government for this region. The state has largely provided that function, which taxpayers and politicians from outside the region increasingly resist.

Mayor Schmoke has taken an active role in organizing private interests to worry about the Constellation, but the city cannot come up with $10 or $20 million to guarantee physical survival.

3. The Baltimore Maritime Museum, to which the city slipped $120,000 to keep it afloat until March, is in the same (dare I use the word?) boat. It has a board. It needs to be saved. Its future seems iffy.

The Maritime Museum consists of the submarine Torsk, the Coast Guard cutter Taney and the lightship Chesapeake. They, like the Constellation, are a joy to promenaders who do not visit or pay. In this role they are less important than the Constellation but also less expensive to maintain.

While neither the Constellation Foundation nor the Baltimore Maritime Museum might wish to be dragged down by the other, if both require salvation, a single salvage effort involving institutional merger might make the most sense.

4. A single institution maintaining these craft for the public might operate best as a subsidiary of one of the healthier harborside nonprofits, or as a consortium of all of them.

5. The loss of the Constellation would more than offset any gain from improvements to harbor amenities now under way. This great sailing ship would never return.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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