Aquarium plans in question

Deadline nears for a payment on expansion to Middle Branch

May 25, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

A $110 million expansion of the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- hailed as a major redevelopment for the Patapsco River's Middle Branch -- has been delayed at least a year and now faces a critical deadline to determine whether the project will proceed, city and aquarium officials said.

The aquarium, which is expected to draw nearly 2 million visitors to the Inner Harbor this year, failed to make an $8 million payment to purchase 20 acres of city property -- the first step in building a proposed aquatic center -- more than a year after the transaction was approved by the city Board of Estimates.

Now, the city's development agency has given the aquarium until June 14 to produce the payment or drop its plans for the waterfront site, used for a 140,000-square-foot service garage for city vehicles. Officials said there is hope that a deal can be reached, but they also said the two sides are not actively negotiating.

"We are really at the end, and we're either going to do it or not," said Andrew B. Frank, an executive vice president and a leading deal maker for the Baltimore Development Corp. "We're all motivated to make it happen. There has been so much time invested."

Withdrawal from the expansion would be a significant blow to the revival of the Middle Branch, a long-neglected industrial area. At the time of its approval, city leaders said the project would not only bring development to one contaminated property, but also spur residential and business growth on adjacent sites.

Word of the delay comes shortly after the aquarium opened its $74.6 million Australian pavilion, an exhibit that has excited the city's tourism industry but that was months late and millions over budget -- potentially limiting the pool of private donations officials have said would be needed for the Middle Branch expansion.

Molly Foyle, a spokeswoman for the aquarium, characterized the land transaction as "in a waiting pattern" but denied that the delay had anything to do with the institution's finances. She said aquarium leaders still hope to broker a deal, and that would involve purchasing the city garage.

"The next 30 days are going to be telling," Foyle said. "It may look like the water surface is smooth, but there's a lot of activity underneath."

In the first phase of construction, the aquarium proposed converting the city's central garage to an animal care facility that would be used to house off-exhibit marine animals -- from extra turtles to a "retired" eel -- and to quarantine and treat sick animals. The $8 million payment was to be used to help the city build a garage at 3800 E. Biddle St.

The original schedule called for construction to begin on the garage by June 1 last year and for the Department of Public Works to move its mechanics there this August. Though Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. is waiting to begin work on the new facility, the project never got under way because the payment never materialized.

A decision is needed now, Frank said, before the company's bid proposal expires.

"That definitely raises some red flags for me," said City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose district includes the aquarium and who said he was not aware of the delays. "It's a huge tourism draw, and they've been doing an excellent job marketing themselves."

The new campus, which would be called the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, was to be completed by 2008 and was expected to include a park and conservation area. Over the long term, the aquarium also envisioned a conference center, a hotel and possibly a fishing pier.

Foyle said the urgency for the expansion was initially driven by a deadline to move the aquarium's off-exhibit animals from their current home, a Fells Point warehouse, by 2008. But, she said, the aquarium now believes it may have more freedom to extend its lease.

When the project came before the Board of Estimates in late 2004, city officials discussed the $8 million payment, according to minutes from the meeting. City Council President Sheila Dixon, the board's chairwoman, insisted that BDC honor its commitment to the new garage.

"It is a vital service," Dixon said at the time. "I just hope -- I would like the minutes to reflect that in moving forward that we do not shortchange that project. I don't want us to get amnesia down the road."

The $8 million payment became an issue again this month when the Department of Public Works presented its fiscal year 2007 budget to the City Council. The garage is one site used to maintain a fleet of more than 5,400 motorized vehicles and other equipment, including police cars.

Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said the aquarium is among the city's most important cultural institutions and a major attraction for convention organizers. While the new center itself might not attract visitors, its ancillary features, such as the park, could.

"Wherever I go, people come up and say to me that our aquarium is great," Hinds said. "A lot of people who come to Baltimore start their trip at the aquarium."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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