Columbus Center board reshuffled amid woes Action today expected to affect exhibition hall

December 12, 1997|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The financially troubled Columbus Center has restructured its board and is expected to make a major announcement today concerning the future of its exhibition hall, center officials said last night.

The board met behind closed doors last night to discuss the fate of the $10 million Hall of Exploration, which has failed to attract the number of visitors anticipated when it opened with fanfare in April.

Paula Dozier, a Columbus Center spokeswoman, said the board was restructured last night to allow a three-member panel representing the entities with a financial stake in the center -- Baltimore, the state and the University of Maryland -- to take immediate action to address the center's problems.

Dozier said an announcement concerning the hall was expected today.

She said the board had appointed M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., to represent the city; James T. Brady, the Maryland secretary of business and economic development to represent the state; and Rita Colwell, head of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, to represent the university.

Dozier would not say what action the group might take, but Brady said last night that the board's announcement would focus on operations at the financially troubled Hall of Exploration.

The $160 million Columbus Center, on the north end of Piers 5 and 6, is primarily a research center for marine biotechnology. But it includes the 46,000-square-foot hall, which is designed to inform visitors about research being done on the premises.

The hall contains exhibits that help visitors understand marine biotechnology, including a giant horseshoe crab, a deep-sea theater and a walk-through rockfish.

The hall was expected to generate revenue to help pay the operating costs of the building.

But after a flurry of publicity related to its opening, there was never much marketing.

The directors had 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 officials said last month that the hall attracted 48,118 visitors in its first four months of operation, 134,682 fewer than projected, and that the result had been a financial crisis for the entire operation.

The gap between actual and projected attendance meant $700,000 less in revenue than had been expected, and that revenue had been counted on to help cover operating costs.

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

Brady said the board's action will not affect research operations. He said the announcement today will concern the operations at the Hall of Exploration and its 38 to 40 employees.

"We have a responsibility to the employees, to see that they're treated fairly in this process," Brady said last night.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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