Port Discovery relocation to harbor in peril

Kids museum may seek drop in agreed-upon rent

Columbus Center unlikely to comply

Finding tenant to lease existing home led to snag

January 17, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The proposed relocation of Port Discovery to the Columbus Center would likely be killed if officials from Baltimore's children's museum seek to renegotiate an agreement made last summer to lease the space, according to a regent of the University System of Maryland, which owns the Columbus Center.

David H. Nevins, chairman of the Board of Regents' finance committee, said yesterday that it was his "understanding" that Port Discovery would ask for a reduction in rent.

"I think it is doubtful that we'll be in a position to accommodate a significant decrease in those numbers," Nevins said. "If that indeed is the case, we will take a new and fresh look at alternative uses, several of which are in the hopper at this time."

In July, Port Discovery said it would close its current home, the former Fishmarket entertainment complex, by the end of last year and reopen this spring in the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration. The museum negotiated a tentative lease with the regents in July. But finding a tenant for its 80,000-square-foot space at Market Place, doing design work and securing necessary approvals for the Hall of Exploration site has taken the museum longer than anticipated.

Douglas L. Becker, chairman of Port Discovery's board of directors, said yesterday that the amount of money available for a lease would depend on what the museum could obtain for its current space.

"If we got less than we expected for our building, we'd have to offer them less," said Becker, chairman and chief executive of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. "They know that."

Port Discovery leases its Market Place location from the city for $1 a year and has 95 years remaining on that lease.

It costs about $500,000 to $700,000 annually to maintain the Hall of Exploration, even vacant, Nevins said. So the University System would want to recoup at least that amount through its lease, he said. Nevins declined to disclose the terms of the proposed lease.

The finance committee is expected to decide next week on whether Port Discovery is still a prospective tenant for the Hall of Exploration and develop a recommendation for the museum's leasing the space.

There has been interest in the space from a handful of potential tenants ranging from retail to commercial to public museum users that would be both short-term and long-term tenants, Nevins said.

"I am optimistic that in the not-too-distant future we will find an appropriate and financially beneficial use for that space," he said. "The children's museum, at this time, may or may not represent that use. There are significant financial obstacles or hurdles that still must be overcome for us to culminate the deal with Port Discovery."

Nevins also declined to characterize the likelihood of the Port Discovery deal's going through.

"I don't want to jump to conclusions," Nevins said. "We would still, at least in theory, be delighted to have them occupy the space. But we have a fiduciary obligation to meet. They must pass that test. If they can't or won't, we will proceed accordingly and begin reviewing options."

Nevins said he hopes to have the space occupied by spring or summer.

Meanwhile, Becker said yesterday that Port Discovery is operating on a month-to-month basis. Employees selling group visits can promise only that the children's museum will be open through February. People who make group reservations after that date are told their money will be refunded if the museum closes for a move before their visit.

Port Discovery's options include moving to the Hall of Exploration, remaining at the existing site but operating under a different economic model, and partnering with another museum, Becker said. He hopes that a decision can be made within the next two weeks.

"I really do think we're getting very close to a final conclusion," he said. "On any given day I'd give different answers about which horse is in the lead as far as a favored plan inside the organization."

Casual conversations have transpired with the Maryland Science Center, which is in the midst of a $40 million renovation and expansion, and the Visionary Arts Museum on Key Highway about sharing space, Becker said. But if the decision is made to partner with another institution, he said, he would expect to open the field.

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the Visionary Arts Museum, said yesterday she has had no further discussions with Becker about working together.

But there have been about a half-dozen meetings between senior Port Discovery staff and senior Science Center staff in recent weeks, in addition to exchanges of phone calls, Christopher Cropper, senior director of marketing at the Science Center, said yesterday.

"What we're talking about is how a partnership at this location might work and what it ultimately might look like," Cropper said. "We want to look at whether a partnership like this makes for a stronger entity in the near and long term. We're examining the possibilities seriously. We want to do what's best for both institutions and for the cultural landscape of Baltimore."

Port Discovery's planned move is part of an effort to shore up finances at the $32 million museum, which has experienced declining attendance and layoffs while operating at a deficit.

The museum lost money again last year, Becker said.

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