Museum corrects head count

Port Discovery drew only 313,000 in 2000, new president says

January 16, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The new president and chief executive of Port Discovery acknowledged yesterday that museum attendance numbers for 2000 were inflated by more than 10 percent.

Alan M. Leberknight said yesterday that he discovered the inaccurate figures after joining the museum five months ago. He said that Port Discovery drew 313,000 paying customers in 2000 instead of the previously reported 350,000.

"I come in here as a business person, and I say, `Wait a minute, folks, we can only pay the bills with money that's collected at the door,'" said Leberknight. "As far as I'm concerned, that's all I want to count.

"The only people we're counting are people we are realizing some revenue from. I want this entire organization to be based on good, clear-cut data that we can show people."

Leberknight attributed the discrepancy to the counting of about 10,000 people who attended library programs at Port Discovery and another 20,000 to 25,000 people who participated in an outreach program called Port to Port, which takes museum exhibits to schools and public events.

For the museum, paying customers can include people who come in and buy a ticket, have a membership or whose visit is compensated by a state grant or other program.

Last year's attendance was expected to match 2000's, but the Howard Street tunnel fire in July and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put its already lower numbers even further behind, Leberknight said. The museum drew about 268,000 visitors in 2001, he said. School group attendance was hardest hit.

Attendance for 1999 is accurate at the 415,000 previously reported, Leberknight said.

In 2002, Leberknight said, he hopes to top last year's attendance.

"I'm going to be very disappointed if we don't turn up some," he said.

Bryn Parchman, who this week was named the museum's chief operating officer after serving as marketing director, said she considers 300,000 a good attendance goal for 2002.

Although the Association of Children's Museums asks its member museums for total attendance numbers, it also requests a breakdown of on-site and off-site visits and other categories.

"As not-for-profit institutions come under increasing scrutiny, the distinction among these variables may become more important to the public," said Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Children's Museums. "Port Discovery is smart to take a very close look at its attendance-pattern history as it projects admissions revenue for the next year."

Leberknight, who retired as dean of Towson University's College of Business and Economics last summer, replaced Kathy Dwyer Southern as chief executive of Port Discovery. Southern, who opened Port Discovery, left last summer to become president and chief executive of the Capital Children's Museum in Washington.

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

Port Discovery opened to high expectations in December 1998, and in its first months met its goal of visitors.

The museum, which cost $32 million, was conceived by Walt Disney Imagineering and financed in part by taxpayers.

Although museums expect a drop in attendance after the initial excitement of an opening year, Port Discovery has struggled more than expected.

But museum officials are optimistic.

"We had a great December," Parchman said. "I think it's starting to turn around. Bookings for January, February and March are looking good."

And officials are considering a variety of other measures to boost attendance and revenue - everything from adjusting ticket prices up or down, to team-building among employees, to expanding exhibits.

If ticket prices are to change, it would not be until the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, officials said.

A small capital-improvement campaign is under way to collect $5 million, Leberknight said. The museum already has commitments for about half of that money, officials have said.

A top priority will be expanding the Sensation Station, a small area designed for children up to age 4, Leberknight said. That project, expected to cost between $200,000 and $250,000, could be completed by year's end.

Museum officials also have determined that, because the space for temporary exhibits is broken up, it sometimes precludes some of the better traveling exhibits that could attract visitors. An expansion is being studied. That project, expected to cost between $150,000 and $200,000, is likely to be done by next year, Leberknight said.

"I want this place to be everything it can be," Leberknight said. "The more we can do well here, the more opportunities we create for ourselves."

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