Good grief! Just look at Port Discovery

Turnaround: Port Discovery is reinventing itself, with the goal of improving attendance and curbing losses.

January 17, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

After years of struggling, officials at Port Discovery think they have found the right mix to solve the children's museum's financial woes and boost attendance.

The $32 million museum is reinventing itself by targeting a younger audience and changing exhibits to encourage repeat visits. Its staff also is making a point of listening to customers more.

"We're going through those growing pains that every new institution goes through," said Michelle Winner, a museum spokeswoman. "We've seen where we've made mistakes, and we've acted to correct them. We know what we need to do, and we're working hard to make things right."

Port Discovery has operated at a loss since opening in December 1998.

Last year, it thought it had found a solution when it made a deal to shrink to half its size and rent the freed-up space in its Market Place home - about 40,000 square feet - to the city school system for a tourism-oriented high school.

State school officials quashed the deal in April, sending the children's museum scrambling to further cut costs and raise funds to keep operating.

The loss of the school deal set the museum back, acknowledged Douglas L. Becker, chairman of the board of Port Discovery. But Becker, chairman and chief executive of Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., said the museum is now on track.

Fund-raising has gone better than expected, although it still is not adequate to solve all of the museum's financial problems, he said, and costs have been brought under control.

"I am more optimistic than I was in July," Becker said yesterday.

"I feel like we've made a lot of progress in building a sustainable business model. If we are successful in our fund-raising over the next several months, I think we can say with confidence that Port Discovery is here to stay."

The museum received city approval last summer to seek a commercial tenant to replace the school, but that could take an additional year, museum officials said.

Despite the challenges, the museum is forging ahead, planning exhibits into 2006. It received a boost last summer when a $100,000 grant that had been on hold from the Bank of America was released for use in developing programming for the museum's early-childhood initiative.

Today the museum opens Good Grief Charlie Brown, a traveling exhibit targeting children ages 2 to 12 with a look at childhood trials and tribulations as seen through the eyes of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus.

Children can climb inside a giant pumpkin, feel the wind in their faces from the World War I Flying Ace's plane, fly kites and avoid the kite-eating tree. They can also play Schroeder's piano and offer bossy advice in Lucy's Psychiatry Booth.

Arthur the aardvark and Clifford the Big Red Dog - popular children's book and cartoon characters - and a Boston Museum-created exhibit on music are coming attractions.

Recognizing the visitor-attracting value of regularly changing exhibits was a turning point in Port Discovery's strategy.

Another came with the realization that it needed to broaden the age groups it was targeting. Originally designed for children ages 6 to 12, the museum had too few attractions to keep younger children entertained.

"The 6-to-12 model wasn't the right model for us," Winner said.

Officials hope the changes will boost attendance, which has never met projections. The number of visitors slumped to about 268,000 in 2001, 35 percent fewer than in 1999, the museum's first full year of operation.

Attendance did inch up 1 percent to 271,000 in 2002, when attendance at many high-profile harbor attractions was falling.

Final attendance numbers for last year will not be available until later this month. But the holidays brought in huge crowds, Winner said.

Still, to top 2002's attendance, the museum will need to offset business lost when it closed for three days because of snow over the Presidents Day weekend last year and another day lost to Tropical Storm Isabel.

"We have never lost faith," Becker said. "Once people are convinced that we're here to stay, I think our fate will be very positive."

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