Columbus Center name to change with sale UM also intends to lease offices at marine institute to nonprofit organizations ZTC

December 03, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The Columbus Center's name will change and vacant offices there will be leased to nonprofit groups, but most aspects of the marine biotechnology institute at Baltimore's Inner Harbor will remain the same.

That was the assessment yesterday of the top official of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute after this week's agreement by the university system to purchase the financially troubled facility.

"It won't be called the Columbus Center," said Peter P. McCann, interim president of the institute, which would operate the building. No decision has been made on the name.

Instead, McCann said, the building's identity would reflect the presence of the institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology, which has about 200 scientists occupying two-thirds of the available space.

"This is a major research building in the state of Maryland," he said. "We'd like to have a little more visibility."

McCann said the institute has had preliminary conversations with nonprofit educational and scientific groups interested in leasing office space vacated by Columbus Center Development Corp., the nonprofit group that operated the center but declared itself financially insolvent in June and has been under the control of a court-appointed receiver.

"We will not have any trouble leasing out space," he said.

He was more circumspect about what would be done with the center's shuttered exhibition hall, which makes up about 15 percent of the building's area, other than to say that it would not be a "museum-type exhibition" and that no major renovations were planned.

"The public space -- that's a little more complicated," McCann said. "We've got to use that space in other ways."

Under the purchase agreement, the university system will pay $750,000 as part of a long-term lease for the city-owned land on which the building sits and $100,000 for some of its equipment.

It will also give up its claim on $1 million owed it by the center. The state and city are forgiving $4.8 million owed them to complete construction of the $160 million building, which opened in 1995.

The agreement requires city and state approval. "It's a step forward to a resolution of what has been a difficult situation," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, head of the city's economic development agency.

Equipment, ranging from computers to a giant rockfish, not bought by the university system will be auctioned Tuesday to pay off dozens of creditors. An inspection of the items to be sold is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow.

The Columbus Center's receiver, Howard A. Rubenstein, said the university system was the only potential buyer interested in the building. He said the building's marketability was constrained by requirements of federal grants used for construction that the center be used only for research and education. "I could have sold that building 12 times if there were no restrictions," he said.

McCann said the biotechnology institute hoped to resume science education programs for middle school students that were halted shortly after the center's public spaces closed. Hands-on programs for high school students have continued, during that time, he said.

The institute will be responsible for the operating costs of the building, which McCann said amount to $1.6 million a year, or about a fifth of the marine biotechnology center's $8.2 million budget. Any money received from tenants would be used to offset those costs, he said.

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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