Dark days at City Life Museums Money crunch: As funds run out, ambitious local history project faces uncertain future.

February 15, 1997

LESS THAN A year after the opening of its magnificent, restored cast-iron exhibit building, the Baltimore City Life Museums is in deep trouble.

The institution never finished an $11.5 million capital campaign and owes a bank $2.5 million on the new building. Worse yet, the museum faces a new fiscal year without having secured a funding source for about half of its $2 million operating budget.

City Life's predicament is a classic case of over-expansion with inadequate funds.

The crisis could not come at a worse time. Under an agreement with the city, the museums, after a five-year transition period, were to become totally self-sufficient when the current fiscal year ends in June.

Instead, with no funding sources in sight, the museums' board was forced to go back to the Schmoke administration, asking not only that an annual $837,000 subsidy be continued for at least two more years but that an additional $475,000 be allocated for operational purposes.

Faced with other budget problems, the Schmoke administration said no. "It was a shock to us," city finance director William R. Brown Jr. said of the size of the request, which equaled 1.5 cents on the property tax rate.

The city recommended that the board renegotiate its bank loan and seek aid from the private sector. That's where things stand now. Unless the crisis can be overcome within a month, the museum not only will have to make drastic further cuts in its staff and opening hours but may have to consider closing its eight exhibit sites altogether, according to board president Marcella Schuyler.

The City Life Museums is a wonderful local history resource. It has to be saved.

This is particularly important because Baltimore is celebrating this year the 200th anniversary of its incorporation. Indeed, a family history center on the City Life premises is to be a key component of bicentennial observances. Less than two months before opening, though, it is only partially funded.

We are certain that if private-sector donors, including foundations, come to the aid of the Baltimore City Life Museums in meaningful ways, City Hall will pitch in. A determined all-out drive can -- and must -- save this institution and put it on a sound footing for the future.

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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