A tough, good call

April 25, 2003

STATE SUPERINTENDENT Nancy S. Grasmick made the right decision yesterday in scuttling the city schools' dubious lease agreement with Port Discovery. The children's museum is many great things, but its increasingly coveted real estate is not a proper site for high school academies.

Ms. Grasmick did not address that issue. She based her decision strictly on the merits of the proposed lease. "I decided to reject it because it has some serious financial issues," she explained.

She said that in addition to the annual lease payments, the city school system would have been obligated to pay $8 million in modifications, a sum the cash-strapped system cannot afford.

Another reason for Ms. Grasmick's decision was that the city owns the Port Discovery complex. The children's museum's attempt to sublease parts of it presented a web of complications Ms. Grasmick wanted to avoid. No one can blame her.

Because the state has to approve all school sites, her decision effectively kills Port Discovery's hopes to gain three training academies as tenants. This will be a major setback for the financially troubled museum, which counted on getting a desperately needed infusion of rent income.

The decision also puts the city school system in a bind; it expected to expand this fall at Port Discovery, where part of the building already is used as classrooms. The search for more suitable and economical space must now commence again.

This frustrating, 18-month wild goose chase could have been avoided if the school board had stuck to its guns and gone ahead with its first location at Charles Plaza. The deal fell apart after nearby property owners opposing the school began flexing their muscles. From that point on, every proposed location became a bone of contention.

Moving away from huge high schools to specialized training academies is a sensible idea. Ms. Grasmick emphasized yesterday she supports that goal. But those academies must have locations that allow for expansion and offer ample, affordable parking, among other essential amenities.

Port Discovery did not fit the bill. It's right in the middle of a pulsating entertainment district. The children's museum was welcomed there as a family entertainment venue and a daytime magnet. It belongs there. Indeed, it would be tragic for Baltimore to lose that museum, which is an asset and has much unrealized potential.

Just as important is Baltimore's need to expand its tax base. Could there be a silver lining in this decision for the museum and the city? Both would benefit if one outcome is a reinvigorated campaign to attract compatible revenue-producing ventures to the Port Discovery area. The future there is in entertainment and tourism.

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