Visitor center inches toward completion

Rainy summer, delays caused by Isabel push scheduled opening to Jan.

October 24, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Delays caused by Tropical Storm Isabel, on top of a rainy summer, have pushed the opening of Baltimore's long-awaited visitor center into January, officials said yesterday.

"Generally you don't have the planets aligning the way that they have in the past nine months," said Roy Kirby Jr., president of Roy Kirby and Sons Inc. which is building the project. "This is kind of like the perfect storm."

Although Isabel caused no material damage to the building, some time was lost in securing the building before the storm and another week or so immediately afterward, when there was flooding and cleanup to be done around the site, he said.

"There are always delays in construction projects, whether it's the weather or its waiting for materials to come in," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, which will run the center. "We've had a little of both."

This delay doesn't pose a significant problem, she said.

"It actually gives us an opportunity to work out the kinks that any new building has, to make sure the systems are working before the big crowds arrive in the spring tourism season," she said. "When it does open, we'll have the kind of center that Baltimore can be proud of."

In June, the visitor center was on track to open next month.

But lots of rain fell during the summer, and then Isabel came. Even after the immediate storm cleanup had been done, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers were delayed in hooking up gas lines because of the power outages elsewhere, which delayed interior woodworking that could not be done until heat was on in the building, Kirby said. And more delays occurred when slate from an out-of-state quarry could not be delivered on time, because the quarry could not be pumped out fast enough due to so much rain.

"The weather pattern we've been having in the past year is something I've never seen in my lifetime," said Michael J. Pine, the project manager. "And I've been in construction 18 years."

The weather problems since June came on the heels of a snowy winter and wet spring, he noted.

In the meantime, tourists will continue to learn about Baltimore and Maryland from the confines of a converted construction trailer that can accommodate only a handful of visitors at a time. This past summer marked the city's fifth tourist season in the cramped quarters.

Tourism officials say the long delay has probably cost the city business, and they are counting on the new $4.5 million Baltimore Visitor Center rising along Light Street in the Inner Harbor to generate more tourism dollars.

The center is expected to draw about 250,000 visitors a year, nearly as many as visited it years ago at its former temporary site near the Constellation.

From the start of the fiscal year on July 1 through last month, the trailer, adjacent to the new center's site drew 23,662 visitors, according to BACVA officials.

A new visitor center for Baltimore has been on the drawing board for eight years, starting with a proposal for an 8,000-square-foot facility that was approved in 1995, when most of the funding was committed.

That project stalled when design and construction bids came in nearly $1 million over budget.

A subsequent plan -- proposed by Carroll R. Armstrong, the BACVA president and chief executive who was ousted in February -- called for a facility double that size, with a gift shop, a police office and space for 14 booths staffed by travel counselors on two levels.

Over the past four years, that proposal was scaled back significantly as sites ranging from Camden Yards to Market Place were considered.

In spring 1999, as Baltimore considered what kind of center to build, BACVA officials were forced to relocate a temporary center from Constellation Pier after the building's owner, the Living Classrooms Foundation, reclaimed the space.

That's when BACVA opened the construction trailer on an empty stretch of the Inner Harbor along Light Street between the Light Street Pavilion and the Maryland Science Center.

Tourism officials are banking on the new 8,000-square-foot center -- a largely glass structure with a distinctive wavy roof -- to increased the estimated 12 million tourists the city draws annually.

The center will provide exhibition space for attractions outside the Inner Harbor, restrooms and a theater that can accommodate 50 to 70 people. Visitors will be able to buy attraction tickets, make hotel reservations and scrutinize restaurant menus in one stop.

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