New site considered for Port Discovery

Tourism high school might occupy current site

Proximity to The Block an issue

Children's museum might go to Columbus Center

July 26, 2002|By June Arney, Andrew Ratner and Bill Atkinson | June Arney, Andrew Ratner and Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

A plan to move the struggling Port Discovery children's museum to the empty exhibit hall at the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor next year and to create a high school for tourism and finance at the current home of the children's attraction is being pursued by city and state officials.

The University System of Maryland's Board of Regents reached an agreement yesterday with the board of Port Discovery to have the children's museum move to the former home of the Hall of Exploration. The university system owns the building that housed the hall, a $147 million marine biotechnology exhibit for children that closed months after it opened in 1997.

"Port Discovery is potentially a major benefit to our community but has obviously been struggling a bit," said David H. Nevins, chairman of the finance committee of the Board of Regents and president of a public relations firm, Nevins & Associates. "Hopefully, the children of Maryland will be the big winners. Hopefully, it puts Port Discovery on a sounder financial base. It puts the museum right in the heart of the action."

The nonprofit board of Port Discovery is in discussions with several parties to sublet its current building at Market Place, two blocks north of the Inner Harbor.

Among them are David Cordish, the developer whose projects include the Power Plant Live complex across from Post Discovery, and the city school system.

The school system wants to open academies for high school students interested in careers in the hospitality and finance industries in the Port Discovery building.

The children's museum, which has been running at a deficit, has 95 years remaining on a 99-year lease it signed with the city in 1998 for $1 a year at its current location, 35 Market Place. The museum plans to use the money from a sublease to operate at its new home.

The state Board of Public Works and city Board of Estimates must approve the museum move.

The children's museum is prepared to close at its current home at the end of this year and reopen at the Columbus Center in the spring, said Douglas L. Becker, chairman and chief executive officer of Sylvan Learning Systems, Inc. and chairman of the board of Port Discovery. Families with annual memberships would get credit for any closed period of time, he said.

Although discussions remained private until yesterday, the idea has created some strange bedfellows among political and business leaders on opposing sides.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, City Council President Sheila Dixon, city schools chief Carmen V. Russo and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick are among supporters of the two-pronged plan.

Cordish - who Becker said provided the original idea to move the museum and is interested in redeveloping the current children's museum site - City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church have opposed the location of a high school at the current Port Discovery. Among their concerns: the proximity to bars, pornography shops and strip clubs.

"When we envisioned this project, we never envisioned a high school being there," said Zed Smith, president of Urban Asset Management, a partner with Cordish in the entity that owns Power Plant Live. "When you look at Houston, New Orleans, Dallas - the great entertainment cities, with defined entertainment districts, they don't have a high school in the middle of them."

In a letter to the mayor, Reid wrote, "The proposed location sits in the heart of an adult entertainment district. Our children deserve to be educated in an environment removed from the temptations of underage drinking, partying and sex shops."

Pratt concurred with that view in a letter to Russo: "The influence from the entertainment district will likely misdirect our youths' attention from their studies that will deny them success."

Supporters of the school relocation, however, say it makes sense to place students committed to careers in hotel and restaurant management close to hotels and restaurants that might employ them. Proponents add that Port Discovery already houses two schools: one for students who get extra attention in making the transition from junior high to high school and a branch of a Washington-based private school for children with learning disabilities.

"I think the move to the Inner Harbor by Port Discovery is a smart move and a good move," O'Malley said. "It would be a smaller space for Port Discovery to maintain. It would be a far more visible location, and they'd probably get a lot more visitors."

O'Malley finds the proposed Port Discovery site for the school preferable to an earlier idea of locating it in Charles Center in the central business district.

People involved with Port Discovery from the outset considered the Columbus Center as a possible site, but the timing didn't work out. The children's museum was set to open just as the marine biology exhibit was closing, Becker said.

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