Baltimore visitor center's opening is delayed again

January inauguration moved to March because of winds, rain, snow

December 21, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Travelers to Baltimore will have to wait until spring to experience Baltimore's new visitor center - the latest in a series of delays.

Rain and snow have slowed the delivery of materials, and recent winds have blown off roofing trim that must now be remanufactured and replaced. The center's opening date was pushed recently from January to mid- to late March.

"We're at the mercy of the weather," said Michael J. Pine, project manager for Roy Kirby & Sons Inc., the builder. "We're within an inch or two of the wettest year on record in Maryland. It's really hurt our suppliers."

Tourism officials are counting on the new 8,000-square-foot glass structure - with its distinctive wavy roof - to help increase Baltimore's estimated 12 million annual tourists.

Visitors will be able to buy tickets to attractions, make hotel reservations and scrutinize restaurant menus in one stop. The center also will have a theater that can accommodate 50 to 70 people.

"We can't fight Mother Nature," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Center.

"The goal has always been to have this building open by the start of the tourist season, which is [Orioles] Opening Day in April. And we expect to be open by then." Next year's Orioles home opener is April 5.

Mike Pietryka, the association's director of visitor services, said his office continues to gear up for the new facility. He expects to add 25 volunteers to help man the building and to hire two or three more part-time employees.

Builders hope to get a final shipment of 250 square feet of blue-gray slate from a Pennsylvania quarry within the next two weeks, Pine said.

That shipment was supposed to have arrived a month ago, he said, but quarry workers have not been able to pump out the rain and snow-soaked quarry fast enough to meet demand, he said.

Last summer, the visitor center was on track to open by November, but bad weather changed those plans, too. There were rains in July and August and Tropical Storm Isabel in September.

Even after the immediate storm cleanup, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers were delayed in hooking up gas lines because they had to respond to power outages in the region. That, in turn, slowed interior woodworking, which required heat in the building.

"It's been hard to work through," Pine said. "We're doing the best we can."

Builders expect to have their work complete enough to allow the visitors association to begin installing displays and doing other interior work by Jan. 15, Pine said.

Until the new visitor center opens, tourists will continue to learn about Baltimore and Maryland from within the con- fines of a converted construction trailer that accommodates just a handful of visitors at a time.

This past summer marked the city's fifth tourist season in the cramped quarters.

The new $4.5 million center is expected to attract 250,000 visitors a year, about the same number that visited a former temporary center near the Constellation.

From the start of the fiscal year on July 1, through the end of last month, the trailer, adjacent to the new center's site, drew 31,503 visitors, said officials of the visitors association.

During that same period, there were 351,597 total inquiries to the agency through the Internet and a toll-free telephone number.

A new visitor center has been in the works 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 grander plan called for a facility nearly double that size, with a gift shop, police office and space for 14 booths staffed by travel counselors on two levels. The proposal was later scaled back.

In spring 1999, as Baltimore weighed what type of center to build, the visitors center had to leave its temporary center on Constellation Pier after the building owner, the Living Classrooms Foundation, reclaimed the space.

It was then that the association opened the construction trailer on an empty stretch of the Inner Harbor between the Light Street Pavilion and the Maryland Science Center, where it has operated since.

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