What next for Columbus Center? Failed Hall of Exploration: Public exhibits never drew a crowd and never generated money to support rest of marine science building.

December 20, 1997

ORGANIZERS OF THE shuttered Columbus Center Hall of Exploration learned the hard way that "build it and they will come" is an incomplete concept.

The full marketing concept, used in its abbreviated form in the movie "Field of Dreams," goes something like this: "Build it and they will come -- provided the attraction is well-promoted, hits its target audience, compels visitors to return and uses its space well."

The lessons of the now-closed exhibition space of the Columbus Center and the failed City Life Museums in Baltimore, both hopelessly in debt and lacking in popularity, is that a handsome facility does not guarantee a successful tourism enterprise.

The Columbus Center's clamshell roof caused heads to turn when it rose on Piers 5 and 6 at the Inner Harbor. But it is now apparent that the financial structure of the $147 million marine science facility was far more daring than the architecture.

Eighteen percent of the building was set aside for public attractions. Income from these marine attractions was supposed support the rest of the facility, where the University of Maryland Center of Marine Biotechnology conducts research without paying any rent for the 170,000 square feet of space it occupies. The Food and Drug Administration is supposed to conduct research into marine food safety there beginning next summer.

Given the lack of specific, proven attractions for the public space, it was a naive to assume that the Hall of Exploration could generate sufficient profits to offset the scientific research activities. The project suffered as well from wildly inaccurate projections on the number of visitors it would attract: 70,000 came; 280,000 were expected.

The private, non-profit board that had planned the attraction for nearly a decade has relinquished control to three parties with the most at stake -- the city, the state and the University of Maryland. They are trying to come up with a rescue plan.

Perhaps space can be leased to other entities, such as incubator businesses in biotechnology or life sciences. The University of Maryland marine biotechnology center could start paying rent for its space in the Columbus Center, and offer additional space to other UM academic ventures. The governor and the State Board of Education, concerned about the progress of students in science and math, should want to ensure continuation of the Columbus Center's successful education center and "distance learning" lab.

As for the Hall of Exploration, many offer opinions on why it didn't work. The marsh grass landscaping outside was pretty, but confusing. The walk-through cell and rockfish were boring inside and were truly old ideas -- a walk-through heart has been part of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute for decades. Glare from all the building's exterior glass made computers hard to read.

The National Aquarium declined to ride to the Columbus Center's rescue. It did not want to jeopardize its own solid standing. Moreover, the Columbus Center's airy design did not meet its needs. In fact, the aquarium wants to expand on its own pier because its light-filled Marine Mammal Pavilion hasn't worked as effectively for some educational uses as the darker, cavernous main building on Pier 3.

If the aquarium pursues state aid to expand, lawmakers will ask about the wisdom of spending $20 million for a new building while the Columbus Center's exhibition space sits unused.

It's a reasonable question, but perhaps oversimplified. Having recently been presented with a national museum award from Hillary Clinton, the aquarium folks know their trade. They understand what the Columbus Center organizers were slow to realize, that creating a successful tourist attraction is more complex than meets the eye.

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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