Port Discovery seeks debt haven to pay for fresh theme attractions

City lending a hand to children's museum as attendance drops

April 18, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Hoping to turn around the struggling Port Discovery, the city's Board of Estimates took steps yesterday to ease the children's museum debt so that officials can focus on bringing in new exhibits.

The city extended the length of its $3 million loan by one year, to 2005, and allowed the museum to use $3 million of its capital to pay off higher-interest bank loans.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said the restructuring would help the museum.

"They are not in as much trouble as they were," O'Malley said. "A new children's museum has a great couple of years and then everyone's seen it ... and they need to reinvent themselves."

Important asset

The museum is an important city asset, he said.

"A children's museum is important," O'Malley said. "It's good for the Inner Harbor ... and strengthens us as a tourist destination."

Alan M. Leberknight, president of Port Discovery, said officials have seen attendance drop since the museum opened in 1998.

Some exhibits were not popular, and he said he has heard complaints that museum access is difficult because of area construction.

He said the museum plans new "theme" exhibits to generate renewed interest. A camping theme is set for the summer and a "Magic and Mischief" exhibit is planned for the fall.

`Better ball team'

"We have to increase revenue and to do that we must have better ball players, a better ball team," Leberknight said.

One expected tourist draw was to be the HiFlyer helium-filled observation balloon anchored at the museum.

But the balloon, which is operated by a private company, has not re-opened for the year because of an increase in its cost of insurance. Its premiums rose from $150,000 last year to $366,000 this year, Leberknight said.

In other business, the Board of Estimates approved a steep increase in the amount of money it will charge for ambulance service.

The Fire Department has not changed its rates since 1996 while other areas that charge for the service have increased fees, according to the city.

The fee for basic life support will rise from $150 to $350. Advanced life support will increase from $250 to $410. The new fee increase is expected to generate about $2 million annually, which will go back into the Fire Department's budget.

City documents say insurance companies and Medicare will pick up most of the costs. No service will be denied anyone because of inability to pay, according to the documents.

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