Columbus Center lacking visitors Hall of Exploration's attendance shortfall causing cash crunch

October 22, 1997|By Gary Gately and Robert Guy Matthews | Gary Gately and Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Less than six months after its much-anticipated grand opening, the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration is drawing far fewer visitors than projected, leading to a cash crunch that has forced it to dip into a $1 million reserve fund private lenders require that it maintain.

The Hall of Exploration, the high-tech fun house featuring marine biotechnology exhibits such as a walk-through cell and a man-made mountain, drew only 48,118 visitors in its first four months -- 134,682 fewer than projected.

Stanley Heuisler, president of the nonprofit Columbus Center Development Inc., acknowledged that the attendance figures for the 46,000-square-foot exhibit hall have been a big disappointment since its May opening.

"We really hoped that we could run a public science attraction that could not only support itself but that could in effect support the research space in the rest of the Columbus Center," he said. "That concept is being sorely tested."

The gap between actual and projected attendance cost the center more than $700,000 -- revenue it counted on to help cover operating costs.

As a result of the shortfall, the center had to tap into the reserve fund, thus defaulting on a $6 million loan from a consortium of lenders led by NationsBank. The center now pays about $94,000 a month in principal and interest on the 10-year loan.

In March, the city lent the Columbus Center $2 million for the Hall of Exploration. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he was unaware of the extent of the problems until late yesterday. He would not say whether the city would give or lend the center more money.

"I don't want to make any judgment until I hear from them. I've treated them as a private entity," Schmoke said. "I have not tried to impose any of my views on this board or the director."

But Schmoke expressed reservations at how the Columbus Center operates. He said that he would have relied less on tourist dollars to keep the center operating.

"I have a different concept of what the facility should be," Schmoke said. "I always viewed Columbus Center as a research and development place and only secondarily as a tourist attraction. I would be happy to see the place full of scientists and contractors to do government research."

The Columbus Center has received a total of $62.2 million from the city, more than $47.2 million from the federal government and $18.7 million from the state.

Heuisler said he's confident the hall would rebound fully without jeopardizing the exhibit hall or the other two main components of the $147.1 million Columbus Center: the University of Maryland's Center for Marine Biotechnology, which houses 126 research scientists and support staff in state-of-the-art laboratories; and the Science and Technology Education Center, which offers hands-on activities for students.

"I don't think everybody's panicked or anything," Heuisler said. "We have a problem. We have had problems in the past, and we solved these problems."

The nonprofit corporation's governing board is reviewing the funding woes and attendance and likely will devise strategies within the next two or three weeks, Heuisler said.

He declined to comment on specifics. But board members said discussions have centered on possible partnership with the neighboring National Aquarium, which ultimately could even run the Hall of Exploration.

Partnerships with other attractions also have been discussed, sources said, as has requiring the Center for Marine Biotechnology to pay rent. (It now occupies 170,000 square feet and pays a portion of operating costs but no rent under its lease).

Rita Colwell, director of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and a member of the Columbus Center board, said working with the National Aquarium, which draws more than 1.8 million visitors a year, would be a good idea.

"Partnering with the aquarium and even allowing the aquarium to run the exhibition center certainly would make a whole lot of sense because of their marine experience, their marketing ability and the fact that they're right next door to the Columbus Center," she said.

The banks that financed the $6 million loan are apparently scheduling meetings with the Columbus Center board members to work out a new plan.

"Everybody goes into loan relationship with certain expectations, and if they are not borne out by events, then there are triggers to make sure that everybody gets together and talk about it," said William Couper, president of Greater Baltimore for NationsBank. "That what's going on here."

Couper would not speak of the specifics of the Columbus Center's $6 million loan.

"But I would say that it is certainly turning out differently than expected," he said.

The six banks want the board members to come up with a plan that prevents tapping into the reserve fund again to cover operating expenses.

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