Visitor center to open May 7

Festival time: Weather and construction delays reset a distinctive new visitor center's grand opening, but the city says it will be ready for a bustling weekend.

March 05, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's long-awaited visitor center will not open in time for the Orioles' home opener next month as planned, but it will make its debut May 7 - a banner weekend for tourism events in the city.

"We've always wanted to have the building open as soon as possible, but Mother Nature didn't cooperate," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "However, the May 7th opening presents us with a tremendous opportunity to build on the momentum created by the other events going on that weekend."

That weekend the city is expecting to draw crowds to its first-ever Volvo Waterfront Concert Series, the Hot Air Balloon Festival in Rash Field, the Preakness parade, a visit from the Spanish tall ship Juan Sebastian de Elcano - which will be docked at the Inner Harbor west wall - the Maryland Film Festival and a weekend of Orioles vs. Cleveland Indians baseball.

Baltimore will be a stop for the Volvo Ocean Race in spring 2006.

"We're expecting to have the exterior wrapped up by the end of the month," said Michael J. Pine, project manager for Roy Kirby & Sons Inc., builder of the visitor center. "We're just waiting on one of our last shipments of exterior panels."

All the site work and landscaping has been completed, Pine said.

A combination of weather-related problems and delays in getting materials, coupled with a tight build-out schedule for BACVA and interest in opening the center on a high-profile weekend, led to the new opening date, officials said yesterday.

A volunteer task force is working on plans for the opening celebration for the center with its distinctive wavy roof, at the north end of the Inner Harbor off Light Street. No details are being released.

Rain and snow slowed the delivery of materials, and winds late last year blew off roofing trim that had to be remanufactured and replaced.

Previously, the center's opening date had been pushed from January to mid-to-late March.

Last summer, the visitor center was on track to open even earlier - in November, but bad weather altered those plans. There were rains in July and August and Tropical Storm Isabel flooded the area 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.

Tourism officials are counting on the new 8,000-square-foot glass structure to boost the number of Baltimore tourists, estimated at about 12 million a year, and to extend their stays. Visitors will be able to buy attraction tickets, make hotel reservations and study restaurant menus in one stop. The center also will have a theater that can accommodate 50 to 70 people.

Until the center opens, tourists will continue to learn about Baltimore and Maryland from a converted construction trailer that holds a handful of visitors. This past summer marked the city's fifth tourist season in the cramped, temporary quarters on an empty stretch of the Inner Harbor between the Light Street Pavilion and the Maryland Science Center.

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.

Between the start of the fiscal year July 1 and the end of January, the trailer, next to the new center's site, drew 34,191 visitors, according to BACVA. During that time, there were 514,800 total inquiries to the agency through the Internet and a toll-free telephone number.

Baltimore's new visitor center has been in progress 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. But that project stalled when design and construction bids came in nearly $1 million over budget.

The plan then turned grander, calling 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. That proposal was scaled back.

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

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