3 ships may not be closing after all Living Classrooms wants to take over Torsk and 2 others

June 28, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

The USS Torsk World War II submarine and two historic ships -- Inner Harbor tourist attractions scheduled to close in September -- would be saved under an 11th-hour rescue that a private foundation is negotiating with the city.

Baltimore-based Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs educational programs on land and at sea, hopes to take over operation of the Torsk, the Lightship Chesapeake and the Coast Guard Cutter Taney in September from the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

The effort to keep the tourist attractions afloat here comes a week after the nonprofit Maritime Museum said it plans to close in September.

Unsuccessful in a bid for $1 million from the city over the next four years, the museum's leaders said they couldn't afford necessary maintenance, improvements and operating costs.

James Piper Bond, Living Classrooms president, said he envisions the ships doubling as tourist attractions -- spiffed up with improvements, including interactive exhibits -- and water-borne education vessels thousands of school children would visit.

"Each of these ships has got a tremendous history and a tremendous story to tell," said Bond, the son of a World War II captain who fought at Normandy.

"We will bring these ships alive."

Living Classrooms, an 11-year-old organization housed in the historic Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse on the Inner Harbor, operates a maritime campus on the harbor, a maritime institute and numerous hands-on education programs on boats and on land.

With 85 staff members and annual revenues of about $2 million from fund-raising and fees, Living Classrooms could operate the ships without city money while boosting attendance considerably, Bond said.

The Maritime Museum now draws about 140,000 visitors a year, second only to Fort McHenry among Baltimore historical attractions, but down considerably from a peak of nearly 240,000 in 1989.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, while acknowledging that details had yet to be worked out, expressed optimism yesterday about the outcome of the negotiations and called the possible transfer to Living Classrooms a "very positive idea."

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, said he's impressed by preliminary plans and Bond's insistence that the ships be elevated to more than attractions worth quick-hit visits.

"I think one of the opportunities [Bond] has pointed out is to use the boats for something more than an attraction you walk in, walk out and you're done," Brodie said.

Jennifer Hevell, the Maritime Museum's executive director, did not share their enthusiasm, however.

Hevell repeated her accusation that the city had repeatedly reneged on agreements to establish a public-private partnership within months of giving the nonprofit control of the museum in 1992.

It had been operated by the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

But, despite sinking some $175,000 into consultants' studies, surveys and site plans, the city has never negotiated a contract with the nonprofit, she said.

"We built the entire proposal around the promises that the city made," Hevell said.

"Had those commitments not been made early on, we'd either not taken on the project at all or taken it on in a different manner."

Hevell also expressed outrage that the city would enter discussions with Living Classrooms without informing the Maritime Museum.

"For four years, they refuse to sit down and negotiate a contract. Now they have conversations with another entity without even talking to us about a new opportunity or a possible transition," she said. "If nothing else, they owe us at least a conversation."

The Torsk, which sank the last two Japanese warships in World War II, has been docked in its familiar position in the Inner Harbor since 1972, predating almost every other attraction.

The Lightship Chesapeake, beacon to safe harbors for three decades, became the Torsk's neighbor in 1981.

And the Taney, the last U.S. warship to survive Pearl Harbor, moved next door to the National Aquarium in 1992.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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