Museum's exhibits sold at discount Auction at insolvent Columbus Center nets creditors $140,000

December 09, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration was packed yesterday -- not with people wanting to see its exhibits, which have been closed for nearly a year, but with bargain-hunters looking to buy them at a discount.

The occasion was the public auction of assets of the insolvent Columbus Center Development Corp., the former nonprofit manager of the marine biotechnology facility in Baltimore's Inner Harbor that said in June it could not pay off its debts.

About $140,000 was raised yesterday to pay off creditors of the Columbus Center, which a court-appointed receiver last week agreed to sell to the University System of Maryland. The amount was a fraction of the $13 million it cost to design and build the exhibit hall.

The auction included dozens of items from the exhibit hall, a student Science and Technology Education Center and the development corporation's offices.

One of the Hall of Exploration's most visible icons, a giant rockfish, was bought for $8,000 by a Kentucky-based religious group, Answers in Genesis. The group wants to to use it for a museum on creationism near the Cincinnati airport.

Skip Tilton, the museum's development coordinator, said the 5-year-old ministry learned about the auction from one of its supporters.

"We only found out about it five days ago," said Tilton, whose group bought two other large displays. "We couldn't believe [the exhibit hall] closed."

Not all the items were as pricey, nor were the plans for them as grandiose. Seven calculators went for a total of $10. Nineteen plastic stacking stools cost $1 each.

The National Aquarium, located on a pier just west of the Columbus Center, picked up a couple of computers to power some of its own exhibits and other miscellaneous equipment.

Still, officials took no comfort in the event.

"It was sad to see," Mark Donovan, the aquarium's senior director for exhibit design, said after the auction was over.

Donovan said aquarium staffers know how much work it takes to HTC mount museum-style exhibits. "All that effort," he said, shaking his head, "and to have it sold like this, at a fire sale."

Amanda Hannaford and Cassandra Moe, University of Maryland

students doing graduate research at the the Center for Marine Biotechnology, had hoped to get cheap computers. But the computers turned out to be bid up higher than they anticipated.

"It's a shame. A lot of the exhibits and stuff cost a lot of money to develop," said Moe.

Last week, the University System of Maryland said it would buy the Columbus Center for $750,000 in cash and an agreement to give up its claim on $1 million owed it by the center. As part of the deal, the city and state are forgiving another $4.8 million in claims.

The auction came almost a year after the $160 million Columbus Center closed its Hall of Exploration Dec. 14, just seven months after it opened.

The Columbus Center Development Corp. had hoped that paid admissions to the exhibit hall would help defray the operating costs of the center, which is about two-thirds occupied by scientists for the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology.

But the hall drew only a quarter of the visitors it had anticipated, creating a cash crunch that led to the center's insolvency.

Hannaford said she and Moe didn't miss the shuttered exhibit hall that much.

"It wasn't opened that long," she said. "We never got used to it."

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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