The fight to keep kids' dreams alive

Museum: Port Discovery looks to a brighter future in a revitalized neighborhood.

May 10, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Children crowded into a new exhibit at the Port Discovery museum in Baltimore yesterday to whisper their hopes into a silver "dream machine," mold rainbow-colored clay into jewelry and scribble their ambitions onto the leaves of a tree.

The celebrations for the opening of the "Design Your Dreams" exhibit might portend a change in fortunes for the 16-month-old museum.

Despite lower-than-expected attendance for the first year and the museum's somewhat isolated location, three nearby development projects promise to attract more visitors.

"They have been pioneers in this area, but now the development is catching up with them," said Laurie Schwartz, deputy mayor for economic development. "All of these projects will add population to the plaza and help create a better connection with the Inner Harbor."

Schwartz said the planned redevelopment of Market Place beside Port Discovery will lure more tourists from the Inner Harbor.

During his first week in office in December, Mayor Martin O'Malley signed a deal with the Cordish Co. that will allow it to fill the vacant 34 Market Place building with restaurants, bars and shops by this fall.

Pennsylvania-based Kravco Inc. recently demolished a decaying Baltimore City Community College building at Pratt Street and Market Place in preparation for construction of a 250-room hotel, office tower, garage and 120,000-square-foot retail complex.

A city panel granted preliminary approval last winter to Sky High of Maryland, a balloon company, for plans to create a helium balloon ride, with a Port Discovery advertisement on its side, north of the museum.

All of this has encouraged Port Discovery President Kathy Dwyer Southern, who has been worried since first-year attendance figures in January came in 60,000 lower than expected. Paid customers totaled 415,000; 475,000 had been expected.

She also knows that children's museums across the country often see a drop-off in attendance in their second year.

Moreover, the $32 million museum -- partly funded by the city and state -- inherited a former fish market building at the end of the Market Place pedestrian mall that failed as a nightclub complex a decade ago.

Failed neighbors

The brightly colored Port Discovery building at 35 Market Place, its lobby decorated with cartoon rowhouses and fanciful kites, has as its neighbors failed projects including the City Life Museums, the Columbus Center Hall of Exploration and the Brokerage minimall.

"It was very scary," Southern said of receiving her attendance figures. "Before we opened up, we said to the city, `Don't leave us out here alone.' Market Center was kind of a no man's land. Nobody was around us. And we weren't really a part of the Inner Harbor."

Reed Cordish, a vice president of Cordish Co., said the planned Power Plant Live! center will help Port Discovery by adding a stage to the plaza in front of the museum and bars, restaurants, cafes and perhaps an ice cream shop.

"This project will 100 percent help Port Discovery's attendance numbers," said Cordish. "Port Discovery is doing a wonderful job, but they have been alone there. We are going to make a lot of improvements to the plaza that will draw a lot more people down there."

At the opening of the exhibit yesterday, O'Malley leapt from an 18-wheeler decorated with pictures -- designed by children -- of aliens, elephants, houses, the space shuttle and futuristic cities.

`Design your Dreams'

The "Design Your Dreams" installation, which is funded by CitiFinancial Corp., allows children to express their aspirations by designing jewelry that matches their interests, writing about their hopes and videotaping themselves talking about their futures.

"Sometimes as adults we forget what dreams mean," said O'Malley. "That's why Baltimore is supportive of Port Discovery. It tells children that they can accomplish anything that they hope for, if they hang in there and persevere."

After the opening ceremony, Southern took a reporter on a tour of the museum and talked about its first year.

As she discussed fund raising, children swirled around her, sliding down industrial-style pipes onto a fake oil slick, bounding across rope bridges, scaling an enormous jungle gym.

A former director of Montpelier, the home of President James Madison in Orange County, Va., Southern said she became nervous about Port Discovery during its $32 million fund-raising campaign when the City Life Museums closed across the street in 1997.

Extra funding

Knowing that that failure was in part caused by city budget cuts, Southern said she made extra efforts to raise an additional $3 million to create a Port Discovery endowment that would help it remain independent of government funding.

Although the city and state contributed a combined $16 million to the opening of Port Discovery, its $5.6 million annual budget is free of city and state funds, with 65 percent of the money coming from tickets and 35 percent from private donations.

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