Columbus Center stops work on public displays $5 million needed

summer opening delayed

February 26, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The Columbus Center has called a halt to construction of the building's public displays while it scrambles to come up with the $5 million needed to complete the work, pushing back the exhibit's much-anticipated summer opening at least until fall.

The Hall of Exploration, containing attractions ranging from interactive computer systems to a walk-through cell, is the final stage of the $160 million facility at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The Center for Marine Biotechnology, which houses 126 research scientists and support staff in state-of-the-art laboratories, opened 11 months ago; the Science and Technology Education Center, which offers hands-on activities for students, opened in the fall.

Two weeks of previews of the exhibit hall were to begin in mid-July, and the grand opening had been scheduled for July 27 -- the peak of the tourist season. Projections are that the exhibit hall will draw at least 400,000 visitors in its first year.

"We're all very frustrated," said Stanley Heuisler, president and chief executive officer of Columbus Center Development Inc., the nonprofit corporation that developed the center. "Everyone wants to get in the place. There's a great pent-up public demand."

Mr. Heuisler said that the shortfall, the result of less-than-expected federal funding, was "not a crisis." But he conceded that if the opening is delayed past midfall, it could have a "real impact" because of the possibility of increased building costs and because admission revenue from visitors is counted on to balance the center operating budget.

"Every month we delay, we're delayed from reaching our break-even point," he said.

Completion of the exhibit hall has been pushed back before. It originally was to open Memorial Day, then was scheduled for this spring. But this is the first time a delay was caused by lack of money.

Columbus Center officials have known for more than a year that they lacked the money to complete the hall, but they realized two months ago that they would not be able to close the gap in time to open the hall by summer.

Federal funds to build the Columbus Center came in at $47.2 million -- $7.1 million less than anticipated.

The Columbus Center hoped to close that gap in part by negotiating a long-term lease with the federal Food and Drug Administration to consolidate the agency's seafood toxin researchers here, but those negotiations were delayed by budget-related closings of the federal government.

The center plans to raise nearly $2 million by borrowing against corporate pledges of donations. Center officials have talked to several foundations about guaranteeing the loans, Mr. Heuisler said, leaving a $5 million shortfall.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said his philanthropy is among those that have been contacted. "It hasn't gone to our board yet, but our staff is favorably disposed," he said.

To get the remaining $5 million, Mr. Heuisler said, the Columbus Center has stepped up its fund-raising activities and has asked city and state officials to make loans to the center -- "all of which we would pledge to repay."

But it is unclear whether the city and state, which already have spent tens of millions of dollars on the project and are facing tight budget squeezes, will commit additional funds.

"My staff is exploring possible loan options, and we hope to have an answer to the Columbus Center board very soon," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said through his spokesman.

"I just think it's premature to comment," said Darlene Frank, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

City tourism and promotion officials say that they had not begun promoting the Columbus Center's exhibit hall and that the delay in the opening would have little or no effect on overall visitor levels. Nonetheless, they expressed surprise and disappointment at the news.

"It would give us something extra to talk about that's new and different," said Tracy Baskerville, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Promotion.

Also disappointed are scientists at the Center of Marine Biotechnology.

"We really would like to see this whole project getting to where it should be," said Madilyn Fletcher, director of the research institution that is part of the University of Maryland.

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