Ambitious Projects Rejuvenate Waterfront

Multiple Attractions Aim To Increase Tourist Trade

April 29, 1997|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

The Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration, Baltimore's newest tourist attraction, is widely viewed as a catalyst in the long-standing effort to broaden the downtown tourism district.

City, state and tourism industry leaders look hopefully to the high-tech, interactive science emporium as a gateway to an area that had long struggled, a few blocks and a world removed from the glitz of the Inner Harbor.

Since construction crews broke ground in 1992 for the $160 million Columbus Center, to be completed with Saturday's opening of the 46,000-square-foot exhibit hall, ambitious projects have been launched in the blocks around the center.

"I think we can demonstrate in terms of what's happening around us that there's been a ripple effect," said Stanley Heuisler, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Columbus Center Development Inc.

"I like to think that in five years, we've really helped spark a lot of positive energy," he said.

Indeed, five years ago, the center's site sat in a part of downtown where one high-profile project after another had been struggling or failed. The Power Plant and Fishmarket entertainment complexes were shuttered. The Harrison's Pier 5 Hotel was well on its way to multimillion-dollar losses and city bailout. The Pier Six concert pavilion suffered poor attendance and low revenues. Inner Harbor East development had yet to begin, and the Candler Building was only 25 percent occupied.

Today, the Power Plant is about to reopen as a new $25 million entertainment center with tenants like Hard Rock Cafe and a Barnes & Noble Superstore. Port Discovery, a $29 million, Disney-designed children's museum, is being developed inside the old Fishmarket building. The Pier 5 hotel is undergoing an attempted revival under new ownership. Candler and the concert pavilion are thriving.

And the $350 million Inner Harbor East plan has begun transforming former sites of abandoned lumberyards and warehouses into 20 acres of homes, shops, offices and restaurants.

The Hall of Exploration itself projects 400,000 visitors its first year, with an estimated economic impact of more than $17 million.

"I think it's going to provide a mixture of the science business and tourism unlike the two have ever been mixed anywhere else, and will prove a big draw bringing people to the east side," said George Williams, state tourism director.

But he said it's essential the hall and other attractions work together, for example, through joint marketing and perhaps passes allowing admission to multiple attractions for one price.

Heuisler agrees and says working with other attractions to attract visitors will be a priority. One idea: maritime-theme packages featuring attractions such as the Hall of Exploration, the National Aquarium and the Baltimore Maritime Park being developed by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation.

The foundation recently took over and is spiffing up the USS Torsk submarine, the Lightship Chesapeake and the Coast Guard Cutter Taney with interactive displays. The maritime park also includes the historic Seven-Foot Knoll Lighthouse, a maritime campus on the harbor and hands-on programs for children and visitors.

Tourism leaders view expanding and diversifying the area's offerings as crucial to boosting the city's $1 billion-a-year tourism trade.

Other cities have redefined urban entertainment on a grand scale and launched much more aggressive and costly marketing efforts since the days of Baltimore's touted renaissance nearly two decades ago, and the city must play catch-up.

If Baltimore equaled the national averages for lengths of stays and visitor spending, the city would take in at least $700 million to $800 million more a year in direct tourism spending.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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