Schmoke offers hope for bailout of City Life Museums with strings Board must have plan to become profitable

February 21, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's City Life Museums, which has been threatening to close unless the city forks over $837,000, was thrown a lifeline yesterday when the mayor hinted that he might agree to a bailout.

But, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke warned, museum officials first would have to come up with a restructuring plan that shows the museum could be profitable and independent.

"If that's all we have is a request for money without anything else, that's not going to be well-received at all," Schmoke said yesterday. "There have to be some changes."

City Life Museums board chairwoman Marcella Schuyler said that the board planned to give the mayor a proposal late yesterday.

Unwilling to provide details, Schuyler said further layoffs of the 40-odd member staff are under consideration.

The plan also will ask the city for $837,000 and will report on how to reduce expenses and rebuild public confidence.

The news that the mayor was willing to listen came as a relief to museum officials yesterday.

"I think it is terrific," Schuyler said. "It would be nice to have another year under our belts to get this together."

The museum, which showcases the life and times of Baltimoreans, is $2.5 million in debt and so short of cash that it has shut down two days a week and closes early on three other days.

For months museum officials have come to the city asking for financial relief. But up until yesterday, Schmoke has been unwilling to deal, saying that he has subsidized the institution close to $4.2 million in the past five years.

Schmoke blamed the museum's financial woes on poor decision-making by management and bad timing.

"They expanded a bit too fast, and they lost their director and one of their chief fund-raisers at the same time, so it caused some problems," Schmoke said.

City Life Museums, which is mainly on the eastern edge of downtown, can't pay its operating expenses because visitors have been elusive at the nine-museum site.

Museum officials contend that the institution is too far from the tourist center at the harbor to attract people.

But Schmoke said yesterday that plans are in the works to draw more people once the Disney-designed Port Discovery Children's Museum at the nearby Fishmarket Building opens early next year.

"I can say that we are thinking about building a bridge," from Port Discovery to City Life Museums, Schmoke said.

Museum officials believe that a bridge from Port Discovery, expected to draw 400,000 people annually, would make access to City Life easier.

Though attendance is growing, it remains about two-thirds behind the museum's goal of 100,000 visitors a year.

The museum's financial problems surfaced publicly in October when Executive Director John W. Durel laid off six employees. Then in November, the board ousted Durel and replaced him with Sally Zinno, who is interim director.

Last year, the museum embarked on a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of its newest showpiece: the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center on South Front Street.

The museum's history campus at Lombard and Front streets includes the 1808 Carroll Mansion, the 1840 House, the Center for Urban Archaeology and the Brewer's Park.

It also operates the Shot Tower on Fayette Street, the Peale Museum and the H. L. Mencken House in Union Square.

Originally owned and operated by the city of Baltimore, the City Life Museums became a private institution several years ago.

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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