Port Discovery as a cash cow

August 11, 2002

IT'S EASY TO understand why the troubled Port Discovery children's museum would want to move to a more visible location near the National Aquarium. But should it then be allowed to hold on to its current home - which it leases from the city for $1 a year - and make a huge profit by leasing it to some other user?

A fierce controversy has erupted over this question. The children's museum's boosters argue that this would resolve its long-term financial problems. Critics contend that such an arrangement would amount to a gargantuan taxpayer subsidy over the 96 remaining years of the lease.

There should be no dispute; the lease language is clear. The moment the children's museum vacates the current Port Discovery site, its claim to the building ends.

That said, there is nothing wrong with the plan to locate a small tourism and hospitality academy in the building. That is a contingency use to enable the school to open in September.

However, if the children's museum, after moving out next year, is allowed to turn the building into a lucrative rental property, that would set a dangerous precedent. What would prevent the Living Classrooms Foundation - or countless other nonprofits - from doing the same? Such flipping might shore up their finances, but it would pervert the city's entire $1-a-year lease system, leaving taxpayers holding the bag.

The children's museum wants to lease the whole building to the city school system, expecting more than $1 million in annual rent. The city should nix such a scheme. If the children's museum vacates the building, the city should seek competitive bids and maximize the money-making potential of the Port Discovery site, which adjoins a thriving nightclub complex.

Over the past several years, that complex - known as Power Plant Live - and the children's museum have formed an appealing new entertainment district. After years of false starts, they have brought crowds and vibrancy to the once-dormant area just north of the Inner Harbor. On weekend nights, literally thousands of people gather on a plaza there.

The city would be foolish to relegate the Port Discovery building into a passive use as a permanent school. It is one of the city's choicest pieces of real estate. Its future should be anchored in entertainment - and creating badly needed revenue for the city.

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