Children's museum seeking donations to remain open

`If we run out of money, we will have to close,' Becker declares

April 26, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The chairman of the board of Port Discovery said yesterday that the children's museum will have to rely on contributions from donors to keep operating while it searches for a tenant to replace the National Academy of Finance and Tourism.

Douglas L. Becker declined to say how much is needed from donors. However, the museum would have received $360,000 in rent from the Baltimore school system as part of the long-term lease arrangement that was squashed Thursday by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Becker declined to speculate on how long the museum could remain open without securing a tenant.

"If we run out of money, we will have to close; there's no question about it," said Becker, who is also chairman and chief executive of Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. "But I do believe we have the donor support to remain open until we find a tenant.

"And we have a business plan that shows that securing a tenant will allow the museum to break even."

Becker said he thought the new tenant would be a more "traditional retail tenant."

He said museum officials were proceeding on the assumption that there might not be a tenant in the building before year's end. Given that prospect, Port Discovery is not expected to break even this year, he said.

Becker said the next step would be to put out a request for proposals for approximately 30,000 to 40,000 square feet of space in the Market Place building.

The board chairman said he did not know how soon that would happen, but that museum officials will move quickly now that so much time has been lost.

"We're going to surprise everyone by not running out of patience or spirit," Becker said. "It's very discouraging. But, we're going to bounce back."

Becker said that although he knew Grasmick had concerns about resources, the school district's confidence made him think she would be won over.

But on Thursday, Grasmick said she would refuse to sign a lease agreement between the schools and the museum, saying that the system's financial problems and the lease terms made the deal unwarranted.

In addition to the $360,000 a year in rent, the city school system would have spent $8 million on building renovations and $180,000 in maintenance costs.

Even if Grasmick had approved the plan, it still would have needed the endorsement of the Board of Estimates and the state Board of Public Works.

Last month, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor who is on the Board of Public Works, called the arrangement "outrageous" and said he would not sign off on it.

Many critics of the project have condemned the idea of locating the school near nightclubs, bars and other adult entertainment outlets.

The school's presence at the site even prompted two lawsuits, a taxpayer action and one filed by David Cordish, developer of the adjacent Power Plant Live entertainment complex.

Port Discovery has struggled with its attendance almost since opening.

Attendance slumped to about 268,000 in 2001, 35 percent below its first full year of operation in 1999. However, attendance did rise 1 percent to 271,000 last year at a time when many high-profile harbor attractions lost attendance.

Last July, before talk of a long-term alliance with the schools, museum officials considered moving to the then long-vacant Hall of Exploration in the Columbus Center or joining forces with an existing attraction such as the Maryland Science Center or the Visionary Arts Museum. But the planned move to the hall was deemed too expensive and discarded in favor of the school deal.

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