Columbus Center hall to close Failure after 7 months raises fears about rest of harbor complex

December 13, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

In a move that raises questions about the financial viability of the Columbus Center, the Inner Harbor marine complex is closing its high-technology exhibit hall just seven months after it opened and is laying off 34 employees.

Control of the $147 million marine science and exploration complex was shifted to a new three-member board representing the state, the city and the University of Maryland.

The failure of the Hall of Exploration -- which will be closed indefinitely as of Monday -- is the most visible demise of an Inner Harbor tourist attraction since the flops of the Fishmarket entertainment complex and the Six Flags amusement center in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It puts a damper on an otherwise booming time for the Inner Harbor, which has seen the successful reopening of the Power Plant as a theme restaurant and retail center, and the anticipated opening of the Port Discovery, a children's museum.

James Brady, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, said he and the other board members will move quickly to solve the Columbus Center's woes, which include defaults on bank loans and a mounting six-figure operating deficit.

"It is our plan to have a good handle on this within 30 days," Brady said.

The closing of the Hall of Exploration -- which features such attractions as a walk-through cell and man-made mountain -- is significant because Columbus Center executives were counting on admissions revenue to help pay for the research labs as well as the science and technology programs.

But the center's leadership badly overestimated the number of visitors to the Hall of Exploration, which opened last spring.

Projections had been for about 280,000 visitors by the end of the year, but the center attracted just 70,000.

The lack of interest caused a cash crunch, and the Columbus Center has defaulted twice on its bank loans.

The first time was in September, when it had to tap a reserve fund to pay operating expenses, defaulting on a $6 million loan from a consortium of bankers led by NationsBank.

The second default occurred earlier this month when the center could not make its December loan and interest payment of about $94,000.

Officials could not immediately say how large the Columbus Center's deficit is. But in October, they said it was more than $700,000.

The 34 layoffs represent nearly all of the employees connected with the Hall of Exploration and the nonprofit Columbus Center Development Inc., which ran the center.

Among those being laid off is Stanley Heuisler, president of the nonprofit and the key figure in the center's development and operation.

The exhibit hall and nonprofit had a total of 38 employees. Those remaining on the payroll will attend to the administrative details of closing the hall, officials said.

The layoffs do not include scientists working in the research labs.

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

Because the Columbus Center can no longer make its loan payments, the state has taken over the debt.

William R. Brown Jr., the city's chief financial officer, said that the city is waiting to see the new board's plan for restructuring the center's finances.

"It's premature to make an assessment until the three parties get together to assess the situation," Brown said yesterday.

It is unclear whether the Hall of Exploration will open again as a revamped tourist attraction.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, board member and president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the space could be used to house more research laboratories or retail stores.

Aside from the failure of the Hall of Exploration, one of the center's problems is that the University of Maryland, which occupies about 66 percent of its space, pays no rent.

The center houses the university's Center for Marine Biotechnology, which employs 126 research scientists and support staff in state-of-the-art laboratories.

Brady and Brodie suggested that the University of Maryland might be able to shoulder more of the center's costs. The university occupies about 170,000 square feet and, under its lease, pays a portion of operating costs but no rent.

Also part of the center is the Science and Technology Education Center, which offers hands-on activities for students.

For months, Heuisler tried without success to lead the Columbus Center out of its mounting financial woes.

One failed attempt was an effort to form a partnership with the well-run National Aquarium. Another attempt was to change the marketing of the Hall of Exploration, which critics said lacked a clear sense of identity.

But ultimately Heuisler said that he and the other board members had no alternative but to resign and let the principal backers of the project -- the city, state and University of Maryland -- take over.

On Thursday evening the old board, about 25 members, resigned, leaving just the three current board members.

"I don't think any of us feels a sense of failure," Heuisler said.

"We feel saddened to let go of 34 employees. Nobody [at Thursday evening's board meeting] said, 'Don't do this.' Everybody saw this as the prudent, proper and most efficient thing to do," he said.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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