Port Discovery keeps Leberknight at helm

Building attendance at children's museum is a major focus

November 29, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Port Discovery officials have called off a national search for a new leader, saying they are happy with the performance of the attraction's interim executive director and president, Alan M. Leberknight.

Leberknight retired as dean of Towson University's College of Business and Economics last summer and immediately stepped in to head the $32 million children's museum.

"Alan is engaged enough and enjoying it enough and doing a good enough job that we've suspended the search," said Douglas L. Becker, chairman and chief executive of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. and chairman of the Port Discovery board. "We couldn't be happier with the quality of his work."

Leberknight is expected to head the museum "for the foreseeable future," Becker said. All along, both Becker and Leberknight had left the door open for the job to be more than a six-month stint, and a search might resume after a couple of years, Becker said.

Leberknight fills the shoes of Kathy Dwyer Southern, who opened Port Discovery and left last summer to become president and chief executive of the Capital Children's Museum in Washington. Immediate challenges included countering lower attendance and greater-than-expected financial losses.

The children's museum, conceived by Walt Disney Imagineering, financed in part by taxpayers and heralded as Baltimore's next great attraction, lost less than $1 million during the fiscal year that ended June 30. The exact amount was not available yesterday.

With no experience in running museums, Leberknight was tapped for his expertise in finance and education and his networking skills.

"I'm having fun," Leberknight said yesterday. "It's meaningful stuff. I'm glad I'm here."

One of Leberknight's most important jobs is to learn from the museum's customers what would make the attraction better and to get them to return, Becker said.

"We're looking at ways to improve the product," Becker said. "I know if we had 10 percent more attendance, we'd be substantially further along financially."

Since the museum is a nonprofit operation, any surplus is to be reinvested, used for such things as expansion or lowering ticket prices, Becker has said.

Strides have been made in pinpointing several areas for improvement. He gave two examples. Although the museum is captivating to an 8-year-old, it has less to offer that child's 4-year-old or younger sibling, Becker said. Plans are being studied to expand the Sensation Station, a small area of the museum designed for younger children.

"It's one of the easiest things we could fix to boost attendance," he said.

Museum officials also have determined that, because the space for temporary exhibits is broken up, that sometimes precludes some of the better traveling exhibits that could help lure visitors, Becker said.

"We think rearranging that space could allow us to attract some very appealing exhibits," Becker said.

A small capital-improvement campaign is under way, Becker said. He declined to provide details, but said the museum already had commitments for about half of the several million dollars being sought.

Port Discovery opened to high expectations in December 1998, and in its first months achieved its visitor goal.

In 1999, attendance was 415,000, which was 60,000 fewer than projected. Last year, attendance plunged 16 percent, to 350,000. Even before the terrorism attacks Sept. 11, the number of visitors had been expected to remain flat this year, according to museum officials. And the museum was hurt by those events. Exact attendance was not available because the museum does not release partial-year attendance numbers.

The museum recently hired a new advertising and public relations firm, MGH Advertising Inc. of Owings Mills.

Planning for a new marketing campaign is in the preliminary stages and not expected to launch until February, said Andy Malis, president of MGH. But already he has some ideas about how to sell the attraction.

"We want to be a little more retail in our advertising, to create a greater sense of urgency in making Port Discovery one of the things that people want to do with their kids," Malis said.

"We want to unbundle it from the harbor. We don't think it can be one of the things you do as a side trip to the harbor. We want to make it more of a destination."

Malis also hopes to develop clearer visual images of what Port Discovery is all about.

"We want to show people what you do there," he said. "I don't think people always get it."

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