Mystery project on the Inner Harbor Columbus Center: Multi-layered loan guarantees needed to open Inner Harbor exhibits.

February 29, 1996

COLUMBUS CENTER at the Inner Harbor may well be Baltimore's "mystery project," as its president, Stanley Heuisler, puts it. The architecturally striking $160 million edifice was built on budget and according to the original timetable. Some 125 scientists are working inside. But a $7 million shortfall now threatens to postpone the opening of its Disney-designed interactive exhibits indefinitely.

This cannot be permitted to happen. If Columbus Center's exhibits fail to open, that would cast a pall on a major redevelopment area that already has a troubled history. Worse yet, such a failure could create an adverse psychological climate for Baltimore's efforts to launch a major tourism drive for the 1997 bicentennial of the city's incorporation.

Listen to Silicon Graphics Inc., one of the donors that has committed itself to Columbus Center's exciting idea of combining marine biotechnology research and education.

"Our computing technology will make Columbus Center's virtual shark tank just as real as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park," says the firm's chairman, Edward McCracken. "Visitors can expect a unique and important insight into the undersea world."

Columbus Center is asking public and non-profit agencies for loan guarantees to get the exhibits open. The Abell Foundation has signaled its willingness to guarantee $2 million. That leaves $5 million to be covered.

We think the city and the state should join hands in guaranteeing that amount.

To get the ball rolling, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke should cash in his chips and call his friend Bill Clinton to see what are the snags preventing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from implementing its $5 million multi-year lease at Columbus Center.

When the lease agreement was signed, FDA said it wanted to create a new national safety center at Columbus Center for the nation's consumers and the $40 billion seafood industry. Delays in FDA's occupancy are the chief cause of the center's cash-flow woes.

The Schmoke administration has been talking quite a bit recently about developing Baltimore's tourism industry. Talk is cheap, though, if a major new tourism attraction is allowed to stumble badly at the start.

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