Enoch Pratt Free Library to close Port Discovery site

Visitors flocked to it, but few took out books

May 15, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Three years after opening a splashy Inner Harbor outpost, the Enoch Pratt Free Library will close its Port Discovery satellite -- a $200,000-a-year enterprise that drew thousands of visitors, some vocal critics and only about six book borrowers a day.

The plan to close the Pratt Exploration Center on July 1 for financial reasons -- disclosed in budget documents presented to a City Council committee this week -- prompted cheers from some library activists, who have complained that the location served mostly tourists at a time when the library was closing neighborhood branches.

But they also criticized the Pratt's plan to move most of its Exploration Center programs and resources to another non-neighborhood location: the central library in downtown Baltimore. Pratt closed five library branches -- Dundalk, Fells Point, Gardenville, Hollins-Payson and Pimlico -- last summer.

"It needs to go in our neighborhoods," said Jane Shipley, an activist with Save Libraries/Save Lives, of the plan to shift resources downtown. "Those kinds of services need to be in the neighborhoods where children can get there on their own. No children live around Central."

Mona Rock, spokeswoman for the Pratt, said eliminating the Exploration Center will make more resources available to neighborhood branches.

"The Port Discovery location was wonderful," she said, adding that it served residents in nearby Federal Hill. "A lot of people really loved it. But we want to make sure we don't have to close any branches and take anything away from our neighborhoods."

Opened in December 1998, Exploration Center is the library's smallest satellite -- too small to qualify officially as a branch. It has 5,000 books, mostly aimed at 7- to 12- year-olds. The central library's Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Children's Garden, which opened in 2000, has about 65,000 volumes.

It cost about $200,000 a year to run the museum outpost, not counting about $50,000 in annual in-kind donations from the museum, which did not charge the library rent and covered its telephone and utility expenses, according to Pratt officials. A Pratt branch costs $300,000 to $700,000 a year to operate, depending on size, library officials said.

Circulation figures for the Exploration Center are dismal. An average of six people a day check out books there, according to Rock.

But more people visited that location than the average neighborhood branch, Rock said. Exploration Center had about 265 visitors a day in the first six months of the current fiscal year, she said. Average attendance at city branches is 179 people a day.

That made sense, Rock said, because the museum location was more focused on running children's programs than checking out books. The satellite put on 273 presentations last year, most of them story-time programs. Many of them were tied into museum exhibits.

"That was the perfect match, the perfect marriage," she said. "It was just a good match with what their mission was and what we were trying to do."

She said that the programs and materials used at Port Discovery also will be a good fit with the central library's Children's Garden.

Officials at the museum were not available for comment yesterday.

Port Discovery has seen attendance drop since opening in 1998. The museum sells tickets to riders of the HiFlyer tourist balloon, which has been grounded by bad weather, security concerns and soaring insurance costs.

Last month, the city's Board of Estimates took steps to ease the museum's debt burden.

Under the proposed 2003 budget, the Pratt will receive $18.8 million from the city's general fund for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That represents an increase of 4 percent over current city funding.

The library does not plan any layoffs related to the Port Discovery closing; instead, it will add four positions, according to Rock and budget documents.

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