Columbus Center drops tourism goal Officials seeking biotech firm tenants to generate revenue

$7.5 million in debts

Hall of Exploration failure pushes center into receivership

July 11, 1998|By Eric Siegel and Dennis O'Brien | Eric Siegel and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Gerald Shields contributed to this report.

Abandoning its hope of becoming a major Inner Harbor tourist attraction, the Columbus Center is seeking private biotech companies to fill space occupied by its shuttered Hall of Exploration and to help pay off millions of dollars in debts.

Just three years after its much-heralded opening, the $160 million center has declared itself insolvent and has been put under the control of a court-appointed receiver, a move similar to bankruptcy.

The receivership also raises the possibility that the white-canopied, 1.8-acre center on the pier just east of the National Aquarium will be taken over by the University of Maryland.

The university now fills two-thirds of the facility with scientists in its marine biotechnology program under a 25-year renewable lease.

Howard A. Rubenstein, the Baltimore bankruptcy lawyer appointed as receiver by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge, said he is searching for research companies or government agencies to sign leases for spaces now filled by gigantic rockfish and a walk-through human cell that the center's founders had hoped would attract throngs of visitors -- a vision that was never realized.

"Obviously, you couldn't put a restaurant in there," Rubenstein said yesterday.

The plan had been that paid admissions to the exhibits would help defray the more than $2 million annual operating costs of the center, which was built on city-owned land with state, federal and city funds.

Instead, in its seven months of operation, the hall drew only 70,000 visitors -- a quarter of the 280,000 projected, causing a cash crunch that forced it to default twice on bank loans and to close the exhibits in December.

Rubenstein did not name any firms, but he said private biotech companies are being sought as tenants to bring in revenue and pay off $7.5 million in debts, which include $2.5 million to NationsBank, $2.3 million to the city, $1 million to the University of Maryland and $1.2 million to vendors.

Rubenstein, whose notice to creditors was filed in court papers yesterday, said there is no deadline for paying off the creditors. Tenants must be approved by the city and meet requirements spelled out in agreements reached with the city and the University of Maryland when the center opened in 1995, he said.

"It depends on what they do, who they were and what they could contribute to the overall center," said Rubenstein, who was appointed receiver by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan on June 30.

James T. Brady, the former state economic czar who became chairman of the board overseeing the center in a restructuring in December, said the receivership would not affect the center's research operations.

But he said it seems unlikely that the center's Hall of Exploration will ever re-open as a tourist attraction.

"I don't know that anything is impossible in the future, but certainly the public attraction is on hold at best right now," Brady said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke echoed his sentiments. Schmoke said yesterday through his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, "I fully expect the Columbus Center to survive primarily as a research development and education facility, rather than an entertainment facility."

University of Maryland officials said there was a chance they would assume responsibility for the operation of the center if additional financial support could be found.

S. Gaylen B. Bradley, acting president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, said state economic officials have suggested such a takeover, adding, "It's a recommendation we're comfortable with."

Since December, the university's biotech institute has assumed responsibility for the entire maintenance of the building, instead of just the two-thirds of the costs that it is responsible for under its lease, at an additional cost of $300,000.

"We hope the receiver can come up with a use for the other one-third of the building that will take away the burdens we are sharing," Bradley said.

The university has agreed to pay the cost of the receiver. It also is assuming through the end of this month the funding of the center's Science and Technology Education Center, which offers hands-on activities for high school students, at a cost of $60,000.

The biotech center has about 200 scientists on projects ranging from Pfiesteria to fish hormones, and a budget of between $7 million and $8 million. It expects to announce significant additional grants shortly, Bradley said.

"Two-thirds of that building is a beehive of activity," he said, adding, "We are all disappointed that a great experiment didn't prove economically viable."

Marketing and tourism industry analysts have said the center was beset by problems from the start. It was late in opening, poorly marketed and faced stiff competition from both the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Maryland Science Center.

Stan Heuisler, the center's former president, said the receivership is another blow to a facility that had tremendous potential as a tourist attraction.

Before he was forced out when the center's board of directors was re-organized in December, he said, he found two biotech firms in two days last fall interested in leasing space at the center at the market rate, which was about $30 per square foot.

"It's very sad that a lot of people who worked so hard for the center, the banks and the agencies that helped put the package together, are now caught in this financial fiasco," he said.

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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