Torsk is torpedoed by city money wars Closing: Baltimore is facing loss of three more Inner Harbor attractions.

June 21, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Unsuccessful in its bid for about $1 million in city money over the next four years, the Baltimore Maritime Museum plans to close the USS Torsk submarine, the Coast Guard Cutter Taney and the Lightship Chesapeake in September.

Barring an unexpected, last-minute rescue, the historic vessels will become the second major Inner Harbor attraction to shut down since 1994, when the Constellation was closed.

The Maritime Museum drew 140,000 visitors last year, making it the 11th most popular tourist attraction in the city. The top tourist attraction, the National Aquarium, drew a record 1.63 million in 1995.

The Maritime Museum, a nonprofit corporation that says it needs the money for maintenance and improvements, accused the Schmoke administration of repeatedly reneging on financial commitments.

Jennifer Hevell, the museum's executive director, said the corporation took over operation of the museum from the Department of Parks and Recreation in 1992, with the understanding that the city would sign a contract setting up a public-private partnership within months. But despite sinking about $175,000 into consultants' studies, surveys and site plans, the city has never negotiated a contract with the nonprofit.

"They have asked us to be patient," Hevell said. "We tried, we tried consistently to get them to sit down at the negotiating table.

"We have not had over four years a single real negotiation. The [Maritime Museum's governing board] simply no longer believes the city is willing to deal with this issue."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the city, facing its worst budget crunch in years, can't afford spending any money on the attractions.

The mayor said the city would work with the museum if alternative sources of money could be found. But, he added, "I don't believe at this time that that money exists. So I'm assuming that, as they notified me, they will be going out of business."

Without a contract, Hevell said, potential contributors have been reluctant to donate money.

"We don't know month to month whether we'll be here," she said. "We've been telling potential funding sources for four years a contract with the city was just around the corner. We lost credibility on that."

Schmoke would not speculate on the fate of the vessels, all National Historic Landmarks.

The Navy donated the USS Torsk to the state in 1972, and the sub has been an attraction in the Inner Harbor since. The Lightship Chesapeake, docked here since 1981, and the Coast Guard Cutter Taney, here since 1992, were both donated to the city -- the Chesapeake by the National Park Service, the Taney by the Coast Guard.

Separate contracts with the donors require the state to maintain the sub and the city to maintain the two ships indefinitely, Hevell said.

The museum says it needs about $175,000 a year for the next four years for maintenance and improvements to the ships and $320,000 for operation costs during the four-year span.

In a February proposal, the museum said it needs the money for marketing, staff and maintenance and improvements, including interactive exhibits, audio tours, shipboard sounds and announcements broadcast over speakers, a new ticket booth and signs to accompany exhibits.

Predicted increases in attendance and admissions revenue would make further financial help unnecessary, Hevell said.

The museum's proposal cited an earlier consultant's study that blamed a decline in attendance -- from a high of 238,000 in 1989 -- mainly on a lack of repeat visitors because of "the rather static nature of the museum and lack of high-impact interpretation."

With 25 full-time staff members and an annual operating budget of about $575,000, admissions cover most of the museum's costs, and it says it will break even this year. But without the infusion of city money, the ships will suffer from a lack of maintenance and necessary improvements to keep visitors coming back, the museum said.

"What we're trying to do is avoid what happened to the Constellation," Hevell said of the Inner Harbor landmark that needs millions in repairs. "It wasn't earning enough from operations to take care of long-term needs."

Last year, the city contributed $120,000 to the Maritime Museum as an emergency payment to keep it operating by covering maintenance and salaries. At the time, the city pledged to help the museum develop a long-range plan that could include an annual operating subsidy.

But the city has contributed nothing to the Maritime Museum this year, while subsidizing other museums with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Maritime Museum's board has exchanged correspondence, proposals and studies with the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, for four years. But the focus on high-profile projects such as the Columbus Center and redevelopment of the Power Plant pushed aside substantive work on a contract with the museum, Hevell said.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, who took the helm as BDC president in December, said he couldn't speak authoritatively on the agency's previous dealings with the museum.

"I'm sympathetic. I understand their problem," Brodie said. "We just don't have the money."

Strolling alongside the Taney in the blistering June sun, Hevell said she fears the city will soon lose irreplaceable remnants of the past: the Torsk, which sank the last two Japanese warships in World War II; the Taney, the last U.S. warship afloat to survive Pearl Harbor; and the Chesapeake, beacon to safe harbors for three decades.

"These really are pieces of history," Hevell said. "It's really a heartbreak to face losing them."

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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