The long-vacant site of the Columbus Center's defunct Hall of Exploration has finally found a tenant - though not the public attraction officials had hoped to lure to the Inner Harbor site.
The state Board of Public Works approved yesterday a $700,000-a-year lease of 50,000 square feet in the building to Big Bang Products LLC, a manufacturer of sunglasses, ear warmers and other "performance wear."
The board's approval of the seven-year lease agreement with the University System of Maryland came over the objections of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.
Schaefer, who argued that the company was not an appropriate tenant for the Inner Harbor location, abstained on the final vote. He said university officials had no feel for the Inner Harbor, which was developed as a tourist attraction while Schaefer was mayor.
"They don't give a damn if they put a circus in there. They just want their money," Schaefer said.
The two other board members, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, expressed misgivings but voted to approve the lease.
The selection of a tenant for the vacant Hall of Exploration space marks the end of an excruciating search that began shortly after the $147 million marine biotechnology exhibit for children closed within months of opening in 1997.
"We're able to keep a growing business in Baltimore, and we get the money that we were looking for quite some time," said David H. Nevins, chairman of the finance committee of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents. "It was a win-win situation for us."
Initially, the university had expected to find a public use for the entire space. Nevins, president of the public relations firm Nevins & Associates, said Big Bang would be a "nontraditional" but "excellent user of the space."
The lease includes the entire 40,000-square-foot exhibition hall plus an additional 10,000 square feet that will be used for the company's research and development operations.
Nevins said part of the former exhibit space is to be used as a gallery and display area for innovative products. Additional space would be used for a retail outlet for the company's products, meeting rooms and an open working space.
Daniel M. Reznikov, vice president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, told the board the lease relieves the university system of about $700,000 it loses each year the property remains vacant. Two-thirds of that money goes for utilities, he said.
Reznikov told the Public Works Board that the city administration has endorsed the arrangement with Big Bang. He said the Baltimore Development Corp., the state Department of Business and Economic Development and Mayor Martin O'Malley's office had worked to keep the company from leaving the city. The company now occupies 11,000 square feet in Canton.
The agreement was approved by the university Board of Regents last week and will go before the city Board of Estimates Wednesday, where its approval is all but assured. The company expects to move into the space this fall.
Brian Le Gette, Big Bang's president and co-chief executive, told the board his company has recently doubled its work force in Baltimore to 60. He said the company expects to employ 100 people at the Inner Harbor site.
The company, founded in 1995 by graduate students at the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania, got its start as a manufacturer and distributor of ear warmers at the Philadelphia institution. The ear warmers, a radical redesign of the classic earmuff, became a hit, propelling the company to profitability by 1999.
The company has since added such products as sunglasses, beach chairs and beach towels under the 180M-0s brand name.
Over the years, the Hall of Exploration has attracted potential tenants ranging from retailers to public museums, according to Nevins. University officials sent solicitations to more than 1,000 potential users, he said.
For a time, it appeared that Port Discovery, the nearby Baltimore's children's museum, would make its home there.
Museum officials announced plans in July to close Port Discovery's current home, the former Fishmarket entertainment complex, and reopen in the Hall of Exploration. The museum negotiated a tentative lease with the regents but the deal never was completed.
Officials at the $32 million children's museum said they believed a move to the waterfront would increase visibility and boost attendance, which has declined steadily. But the costs proved higher than anticipated, and Port Discovery officials announced two months ago that it would stay put.