Balloon drifts in a cloud of doubt

This could be last year for tethered attraction

Costs exceeding revenue

Renamed as a nonprofit, it gets Abell Foundation help

May 12, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The tethered helium balloon that has floated over Baltimore in recent years will rise again on Memorial Day. But its future is up in the air.

Because the company that started it wasn't able to pay its bills, the Abell Foundation - a benefactor from the beginning - has stepped in to help the balloon through the season. After that it could be gone.

The attraction has a new name - Balloon Over Baltimore Inc. - and a new nonprofit status.

"From a practical standpoint, it probably has another year to prove itself," said Alan M. Leberknight, board chairman for Balloon Over Baltimore Inc.

"As things were being discussed, there was every possibility from trying to figure out a way to open it, to maybe it never being open again. Abell is still being very supportive. Otherwise the thing would probably be down the tubes and never fly again."

Situated in Market Place next to the Baltimore children's museum, Port Discovery, the balloon operation has struggled financially since opening in July 2001. Its new nonprofit status will enable it to save 10 percent of its proceeds which would otherwise go for amusement taxes.

"From the very beginning, I thought this should have been a nonprofit tied to Port Discovery," said Lee Raskin, developer of what used to be called the Hi-Flyer, which was operated by Sky High of Maryland LLC. "If this had been in the Inner Harbor from the start, it could have been more of an icon and more successful."

Raskin, a retired investment manager, will continue to serve as a consultant. He has long advocated that the attraction be next to the visitor center, where tourists could be encouraged to go up before or after picking up their brochures.

Linked to the ground by a steel cable, the balloon can lift passengers 340 feet above street level, one of the highest public observation points in Baltimore.

To really be successful, the balloon needs a corporate sponsor and a new location, Raskin said.

"I hope there's enough enthusiasm and future support that the balloon can be moved to a better location," Raskin said. "It needs to be in the Inner Harbor. It's a premier attraction. It should be in the center ring."

Before choosing the Port Discovery location, Sky High had considered other sites for the balloon, including land near the Maryland Science Center.

Highly visible marker

Although the Market Place location posed technical challenges because of its positioning above a subway station, it made the balloon highly visible to drivers heading north and south on Interstate 83. The balloon serves as a gateway marker for the east side and museum row along President Street.

The plan was for Sky High and Port Discovery to share in the profit of the balloon, but it has never generated a profit, instead barely breaking even, Raskin said.

But he remains confident that the balloon can thrive in Baltimore.

"There's no better magnet than a balloon," Raskin said. "The sky's the limit. It just needs to be in a place that's more deserving and the balloon will be successful, there's no question."

The balloon has suffered from a run of bad luck, including multiple delays getting started and then an opening that coincided with the tunnel fire that shut down parts of the city for days. Flying restrictions shut down the balloon after the terrorism attacks of September 2001, and then business plummeted because of the sniper attacks. It also suffered from heavy snow and a tropical storm, Leberknight said.

No stranger to the balloon and its partner, Port Discovery, Leberknight is a retired Towson University business school dean who was brought in to help turn around Port Discovery. He spent nearly two years running the children's museum before turning the reins over to its current chief executive. He continues to do volunteer work with Port Discovery.

"Every possible thing that could have happened, happened to those guys," Leberknight said of the balloon's founders. "If you start behind, it's tough to catch up."

The balloon ride is expected to operate daily through the end of September and then on weekends through October, Leberknight said.

"I would hope we'll get enough riders to cover operating expenses and to build some reserves for continual maintenance and upgrading," he said.

20,000 riders needed

With a budget of more than $200,000, the balloon would need 20,000 riders to break even, using round numbers, Leberknight said.

Leberknight is philosophical about the balloon's future.

"Obviously, Abell has confidence in it or they wouldn't have continued to give it the support they have," Leberknight said.

"It remains to be seen. I don't see a financial windfall or anything. I'd just like to see us have a year where there's more coming in than going out. We could come out at the other end and make an intelligent decision for the next year."

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