MORE THAN A decade ago, an expensive and ugly visitors center was built for the frigate Constellation. Today it serves mainly as an ice cream and souvenir stand, where more trinkets and multiflavored cones are sold than tickets.
Now the troubled Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association wants to build its visitors center just a few hundred yards away. Though it's not clear the group has the money to build the $4.5 million glass pavilion, it's in a great hurry to get this monument to its own importance started.
All this is worrisome, because:
The visitors center would gobble up the last piece of open space between Harborplace and the Maryland Science Center.
It would add to congestion at Light and Conway streets, a choke point during crowd events, and would require parking for fume-spewing tour buses.
By breaking ground in August, BACVA wants to be excluded from a study by an architectural consultant who is helping the city to determine what kinds of future uses should be allowed along the increasingly cluttered shoreline.
Out-of-towners don't come to Baltimore to see a visitors center. And once they have found Harborplace, most of their requirements can be served by good signage, maps and information kiosks.
In short, the plan doesn't make sense at all. Even at this late date -- just two months before the planned groundbreaking -- BACVA has not completed the financing package for the center. It may not even have enough money to operate it. That's why the BACVA board minutes' references to the need to create "revenue generators" there sounds ominous. Would the visitors center become another glorified ice cream stand?
This confusion is emblematic of an organization that has been distracted by political controversies for much of the last decade.
The first flash point came in 1995 -- when many of the past few years' big conventions were being booked. Unhappy about the perceived stranglehold of William Donald Schaefer's appointees over BACVA, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke threatened to put the group out of business. "We are playing hardball," a City Hall spokesman said at the time. "It's a question of control."
The mayor got his wish; the board was reconstituted. The much-acclaimed convention bureau chief, Wayne Chappell, quit in disgust. A Baltimore native, Carroll R. Armstrong, was brought back from San Diego to replace him. Since Martin O'Malley became mayor, tensions have resurfaced. Now it's the Schmoke appointees -- and Mr. Armstrong -- who are under fire.
Mayor O'Malley has told his newly appointed BACVA chairman, Clarence Bishop, to conduct a thorough review of the organization's performance. And indeed, a frank assessment of the board's work is needed. BACVA's local membership thinks the group is so irrelevant that one-third of the dues were in arrears earlier this year.
With all these problems, BACVA should concentrate on its internal restructuring. The last thing it needs is a dubious visitors center construction project.
Once the BACVA mess is cleared, the visitors center can become a priority again -- but at Camden Station.
That turreted, vacant landmark would have the centrality and strengths that the congested Inner Harbor lacks. It is near the two stadiums, has plenty of nearby parking for cars and tour buses, is next to the Convention Center, at a MARC terminal and light-rail stop and convenient to motorists entering the city from the interstate network. It would also be near the new Hippodrome performing arts center, which is under construction, and Lexington Market, which is being spruced up.
A visitors center at Camden Station would make eminent sense. But only after BACVA's problems are sorted out.