Columbus Center grapples with 1st-year problems Ways sought to boost attendance, cash flow

October 26, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

By most measures, 1997 has been a banner year for tourism in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, so why hasn't the Columbus Center shared in the prosperity of its neighbors? And what can be done to improve the situation?

Those are the questions prompted by the disclosure last week that in its first four months, Columbus Center's $10 million Hall of Exploration attracted 48,118 visitors -- 134,682 fewer than projected -- and that the shortfall is causing a financial crunch for the entire operation.

Stanley Heuisler, president of the nonprofit Columbus Center Development Inc., has lost no time looking for ways to increase attendance. He is exploring a shared ticketing arrangement with the National Aquarium, new exhibits, increased promotions and a possible name change.

While Heuisler seeks answers, the plight of the Columbus Center raises a larger issue about the Inner Harbor: How can the city's chief tourist magnet be expanded so new attractions thrive without threatening existing attractions?

The same question arose last spring when the Schmoke administration pulled the plug onthe Baltimore City Life Museums, after it reported lower than projected attendance.

Tourism experts, museum directors and others say the contrasting fates of new attractions on Piers 4 and 5 -- crowds flocking to the Hard Rock Cafe yet failing to materialize at Columbus Center -- serve as a reminder that the Inner Harbor is a free market and there is no guarantee that an attraction will be an instant success.

But experts also point to factors that might have contributed to the Columbus Center's attendance problems, from lack of a clear identity to a location outside the area commonly perceived as the Inner Harbor.

They note that other Inner Harbor attractions opened with flaws and eventually corrected them. The Maryland Science Center's main entrance faced away from the Inner Harbor, for example, and the aquarium had to build a new home for its dolphins after they kept getting sick in the original one.

If the Columbus Center can solve its problems, they say, it should get more visitors.

One of the biggest hurdles the Columbus Center faced was its pioneering nature, said Douglas Becker, head of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. and chairman of the group building a $30 million children's museum in Baltimore.

"I think the biggest challenge Columbus Center has is that there's never been one before," he said. "The Maryland Science Center can learn from other science centers. The National Aquarium in Baltimore can learn from and teach other aquariums.

"Unfortunately, there were no other Columbus Centers to model from and there's no pent-up demand for what they're doing."

As constructed on the north end of Piers 5 and 6, the $160 million facility is primarily a research center for marine biotechnology.

But part of it is a public exhibit hall, designed to inform visitors about research under way on the premises. The exhibit area was expected to generate revenue to help pay the operating costs of the entire building.

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum on Key Highway, said she thought the Columbus Center's projections for attendance were too high. She said she agreed with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke that planners should not have relied on revenue from tourists to help cover the building's operating costs. Another problem was the timing of the opening and weak marketing. The Hall of Exploration was one of the last phases of the Columbus Center to open. After a series of construction delays, it opened in April -- months after the researchers had moved in.

Spread over 46,000 square feet, the Hall of Exploration contains exhibits that help visitors understand aspects of marine biotechnology, including a giant horseshoe crab, a deep-sea theater and a walk-through rockfish. But after a flurry of publicity related to the opening, there was never much of a marketing push.

Directors hoped to spend $600,000 the first year for marketing, but that was reduced to $300,000 because of a lack of funds.

Columbus Center board members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said last week that they would push for more dollars for advertising.

"I think it means more advertising, but it also means more focused marketing that tries to send out a very clear message that we are about science and that we are high-end science," one said.

Some outside experts say the name "Columbus Center" poses a problem because it does not clearly convey what the facility is.

"I think they definitely have a name problem," said John Ott, executive director of the B & O Railroad Museum and chairman of the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce. "It doesn't have anything to do with [Christopher] Columbus, per se. But is it a place for children? A high-tech place? A science place? It's very hard to explain to people what it is."

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