It's not 'just another children's museum' Attraction: Port Discovery's executive director is confident that the Disney-designed project will become one of Baltimore's main tourist spots.

September 17, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Kathy Dwyer Southern pictures visitors poring over their travel guides, ticking off some must-sees in Baltimore: the National Aquarium, Harborplace, Camden Yards -- and Port Discovery.

Southern, to be introduced at a news conference today as executive director of the high-tech, Disney-designed Port Discovery Children's Museum, says she has no doubt it will become one of the city's premier attractions.

She pointed out the children's museum will be the first designed by Walt Disney Imagineering and the second biggest in the country (behind one in Indianapolis).

And, with considerable interest among corporations and foundations nationwide, she said she's confident the $29 million project will attract the remaining $16 million in contributions needed to open by early 1998. The latest contributor, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., will present a $540,000 check to Port Discovery today.

"We're not going to be just another children's museum," Southern said. "We plan to nestle right in there with the top attractions so when people think about Baltimore, they think about Port Discovery."

Southern, 50, comes to the $130,000-a-year post after a two-year stint as executive director of Montpelier, the popular Virginia tourist attraction where President James Madison once lived.

Port Discovery's governing board chose Southern from more than 70 candidates to replace Lawrence A. Kessner.

Southern, who is moving to Homeland with her husband and son, comes to the job with more than two decades of management experience in nonprofit groups, philanthropies, associations and government in Washington and Virginia. She lists among her credentials key positions at the National Cultural Alliance, a coalition of more than 23,000 arts and humanities organizations; the American Association of Museums; the American Institute of Architects; and the Smithsonian Institution.

She also boasts considerable fund-raising experience, master's dTC and bachelor's degrees in business administration from the University of Wisconsin and experience teaching college business courses.

Her business know-how and museum experience provided the combination the children's museum needs, said Port Discovery Chairman Douglas Becker.

"We've been really looking to find in many ways two people in one -- somebody to put a project like this together and build the institution, and then to run it over the long haul," he said.

The museum is to open in early 1998 inside the 80,000-square-foot Fishmarket Building just northeast of the Inner Harbor on Market Place.

The Columbia-based Rouse Co. serves as development manager, and Walt Disney Imagineering, the corporate giant's design arm, is designing and building the $12 million worth of exhibits.

The museum will blend Disney-style, high-tech exhibits with education and lessons about life to provide family-oriented entertainment. A computerized "Buddy System," for example, will enable the museum to customize each exhibit according to visitors' tastes, suggest routes through the museum, visits to other city attractions and follow-up reading.

Beyond becoming a big draw for out-of-towners, Southern said she views the museum as a crucial anchor in revitalizing the area east of the harbor. She envisions restaurants, shops, other businesses and a steady stream of pedestrians around the largely vacated Market Place, where the Fishmarket and the neighboring Brokerage entertainment complexes failed in the late 1980s.

And she says the museum will blend education and entertainment to help develop a lifelong love of learning among Maryland schoolchildren.

"If you can hang on to them, reach out a hand when they're young," she said, "then you've got a real chance of keeping them in school, making them a real part of society instead of losing them."

Christian H. Poindexter, BGE's chairman and chief executive, shared those sentiments. He said high hopes for the museum inspired the utility's fourth largest contribution to a nonprofit organization.

"The project addresses many of the issues that are important to BGE and the customers we serve -- education, family, community revitalization and economic development," Poindexter said.

Expectations for the museum run high among private contributors and government: The state and city have invested some $5 million in the project.

An analysis of the museum's economic impact, based on 750,000 annual visitors, predicted that it would contribute some $45 million a year to the economy. It will also generate nearly 1,000 jobs, 93 of them at the museum, according to the analysis by Hunter Interests Inc., an Annapolis economics firm.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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