Problems in bidding cause new delay for visitors center

Three proposals rejected by city panel on minority concerns, 4th over budget

September 05, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The long-delayed visitors center planned for the west shore of the Inner Harbor is likely to miss most of another tourist season after a setback yesterday that will force the project to be rebid.

The Board of Estimates rejected three bids because they did not properly document an intent to comply with minority participation requirements, said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. A fourth bid was rejected because it was over budget, Frank said.

"We originally wanted to be open in time for the peak tourist season of next year," he said. "We'll probably open at the end of August. So we miss one season. We're building a visitor center for the next 30 years."

The new request for bids will be advertised starting tomorrow, with bids due by Sept. 18, Frank said. That means the matter could return to the Board of Estimates by the middle of next month and that construction could begin by the end of the month.

The project, which is expected to cost $4.8 million, is being financed with $1.5 million in state funds, $2 million from the city, $500,000 from private investors, $250,000 from the development corporation and the remainder from the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, Frank said.

Officials at the association, which would operate the center, were optimistic despite yesterday's decision by the board.

"We've had a lot of delays before," said Nancy Roberts, chairwoman of the association's visitors center task force. "I am very much looking forward to Baltimore finally having a first-class visitor center. We've been trying to serve the tourism industry out of a trailer for too long."

Association officials vacated a temporary visitors center on Constellation Pier in the spring of 1999 because the Living Classrooms Foundation, which owns the building, wanted to use the space. They had hoped to break ground on a permanent visitors center that year.

But project delays forced the center to use temporary quarters in a trailer between the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace and the Maryland Science Center, where it has remained much longer than expected. The new center would be just south of the pavilion.

Plans for the project have been in the works for more than six years. During that time, at least five alternative sites have been considered, including the warehouse at Camden Yards, City Life Museums, a site in Market Place, Rash Field and the Hall of Exploration at the Columbus Center, Frank said.

"One of the problems was that the scope of the project had grown but the budget had not," Frank said. "There was an effort by BACVA to raise money to supplement the budget. But Carroll Armstrong [president of the association] wasn't able to find the money. Enough time had passed that people were starting to question the location again."

After Mayor Martin O'Malley took office, he raised concerns about size, cost and location.

At that point, serious consideration was given to the Hall of Exploration as a temporary or permanent home. But the site was deemed impractical.

The latest design calls for a one-story glass pavilion with 7,950 square feet of space, a scaled-down version of an earlier proposal, which called for two levels and 14,000 square feet.

The wavy-roofed building is designed so that it could be easily seen but transparent so that it would not block the view.

The center would provide exhibition space for attractions outside the Inner Harbor, ticketing services, bathrooms and a theater seating 100 people.

Yesterday, in a meeting with city officials, O'Malley expressed concern that the latest delay might cost the city state funding if legislators question the un- spent money as they look for ways to meet the budget deficit. Frank said he did not view that as a problem.

"The state is very supportive of this and has been rightfully impatient with us," he said. "We're ready to go, and it's not a minute too soon."

Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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