Earmuff firm shouldn't be left out in the cold

This Just In...

April 18, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

I KNOW I speak for many Baltimoreans when I express disappointment that the long-vacant Hall of Exploration in the Columbus Center will not be used for Hooters II. Another big idea bites the dust.

Just last month, I proposed that the city take the plunge and cash in on several proposals for commercial decadence - regular tapings of Girls Gone Wild at Bohager's, thousands of slot machines at Pimlico and booze served there until 4 a.m., promotion of The Block to pump up the sagging convention industry - marketing Baltimore as a spring-break destination for college students.

But none of these revenue-producing schemes has come to pass, and we've got City Councilman Bobby Curran proposing increases in parking meter fees, for crying out loud.

And now look: A piece of prime waterfront property, perfect for a tourist trap that might give the visiting firemen a thrill, gets an earmuff manufacturer for a tenant.

Can you believe this?

Here we have the Hall of Exploration in the massive, architecturally amusing Columbus Center, waiting for an appropriate tenant - a major biomedical research firm, for example - and what happens?

Earmuffs happen.

The state leases 50,000 square feet of the building to Big Bang Products, which sounds like the company Wile E. Coyote used to get his explosives from.

It was the University System of Maryland, which owns the Columbus Center, that hatched this deal with Big Bang, for $700,000 a year.

And it was the wonderful wizard of the Inner Harbor, William Donald Schaefer, who groused about it Wednesday in Annapolis.

Good ole Willie. He might be state comptroller now, but he was mayor when the Inner Harbor became a tourist attraction and he doesn't think an earmuff company should be in the Columbus Center.

Of university officials, he said: "They don't give a damn if they put a circus in there. They just want the money."

Well, here's where I get off the banana wagon.

When WDS gets grouchy about something, he's usually right. This time, however, I think he's wrong. I think he made up his mind on this without even trying the earmuffs on.

First of all, these are not Sonja Henie's earmuffs.

They're high-performance "ear warmers" that look like well-padded headsets worn by joggers and walkers. Instead of being connected over the head with a strip of metal, Big Bang ear warmers are cushioned and wrap around the back of the head, eliminating the chances of wearers developing hated "earmuff hair." They don't undo your 'do, if you know what I mean.

They keep your ears warm and block out unwanted noise, and either could have been the reason three Supreme Court justices wore them to George Bush's inauguration.

Big Bang also makes sunglasses, but not the kind your Aunt Sadie wears to Wildwood.

We're talking about ergonomic, "Grillamid TR-90 frames, with Megol nose pads and pivot-guard technology." Plus, these glasses have an "8-base sport wrap frame" that follows the contour of your head, giving "optimal protection" from the sun while "maximizing peripheral vision."

I have no idea what that means, but it sure sounds good, and I want me one of those.

I don't think Schaefer knew all this when he started bad-mouthing this deal.

I love the man but he has a tendency to take the narrow view.

I mean, come on. Had John Paterakis proposed renting the Hall of Exploration to sell day-old H&S Bakery products, Schaefer would have called it a great thing for the city and bought the first dozen hot-cross buns.

Let's get with it here.

The Hall of Exploration was a big pain in the neck since it opened. It was supposed to be a biotech exhibit for children - a fish-egg petting zoo - but looked more like a gift shop with big plastic fish, and closed within a few months.

The Columbus Center is busy with scientists, but why must the defunct Hall have another science-related tenant?

What's wrong with Big Bang?

It sounds like a successful, entrepreneurial company that might deserve a high-profile location in the city where it has its headquarters.

Plus, the scientists who work in the Columbus Center might need ready access to high-performance earmuffs. You never know.

We live in a consumer culture. Americans have a lot of money and spend most of it. There are people who go on vacation and do nothing but shop. And we love to spend money on things that could easily be lost - like sunglasses!

So, if the people who run Big Bang are smart - and they are, apparently, because they hatched their $40 million-a-year business as a class project at the Wharton School - then they should set up a whole exhibit in the Hall of Exploration.

They could do: "Sunglasses Through The Centuries." I mean, I'd like to know - who had the first sunglasses? It was pretty sunny in the desert, so did the ancient Egyptians have them? I think there's a mummy in The Walters with Ray-Bans.

Here's another theme for an exhibit: "Earmuffs: Evolution or Big Bang?"

Something like that. I don't know. I'm not the marketing director, and nobody takes my advice anymore. But I smell a winner.

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