Bad deal for taxpayers

March 26, 2003

BALTIMORE TAXPAYERS beware: Your pockets are about to be picked.

The struggling children's museum is trying to turn its city-owned Port Discovery complex into a cash machine. The museum, which leases the building for $1 a year, would net $360,000 a year by subleasing excess space to the school system; taxpayers would get zilch.

Museum advocates argue this is a good deal all around because it would keep Port Discovery open and provide a home for several public school training academies for the next 20 years.

It may indeed be a sweet deal for the money-losing museum but certainly not for people of Baltimore, who own the property.

The museum can't be blamed for its chutzpah in proposing this ploy. But Mayor Martin O'Malley and the Board of Estimates shouldn't go along with it. They must reject the proposed arrangement and uphold the integrity of the city's $1-a-year leases.

Numerous nonprofit organizations enjoy such favorable leases, which usually have 99-year life spans. The system has worked well, supporting socially important work. The children's museum is the first organization that is trying to turn its lease into a lucrative rental income generator.

This brazen stratagem subverts the intent of the whole lease system. Substantial excess space is not the museum's property to sublet. That ought to be returned to the city, which should then offer it to the highest bidder, or allow the school system to use it as a temporary base for its tourism academy training program.

But even at that, long-term use of the Port Discovery complex for training academies does not serve the city's best interest. It's a misuse of valuable real estate. In recent years, the Port Discovery area has become a hot nightlife district. The rent the school system is offering to the children's museum is peanuts compared with what the city could get on the open market from entertainment operators.

The expanding club scene has the best potential to clean up the tired old red-light district known as The Block, and speed up revitalization between the Inner Harbor and City Hall. Training academies at Port Discovery, a key anchor in that renewal, would not do anything to advance that long-overdue change that is so essential for downtown vibrancy.

Vote no.

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