The Sports Legends Museum abruptly closed its doors Monday, after it was unable to reach an agreement on a new lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority for its space next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The decision, 10 years after the Maryland sports history museum opened in the once-empty and dilapidated Camden Station, came after years of rent negotiations and as the state eyes long-term prospects for the 1856 train depot.
Over the summer, the stadium authority released a request for prospective tenants to lease the state-owned property. The agency expects to take a more comprehensive look at the property in the coming year, said Executive Director Michael Frenz.
"The main thing from this point is we're looking for the highest and best use," he said.
The Sports Legends Museum is seeking a new location and is moving some of the collection in the interim to the Babe Ruth birthplace museum, said Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, which runs the Sports Legends and Babe Ruth birthplace museums.
But staying in the current building on the one-year lease offered by the Stadium Authority was not financially viable, he said.
Fans and other supporters of the museum said they were surprised and disappointed by the news.
"I couldn't believe it," said Orioles fan Brittany Schaefer, 29, of Woodstock, who called the spot a "mini-Cooperstown," referring to the baseball Hall of Fame in New York. "It's very disappointing and very sad that they couldn't work things out."
The idea of locating a sports museum at Camden Station dates to the 1990s, when only the exterior of the building was restored. Various difficulties — including interest from Orioles owner Peter Angelos in locating a restaurant in the building — stalled the project for years.
The Sports Legends Museum finally opened its doors in 2005, after a multimillion-dollar renovation of the depot. It houses the Orioles Hall of Fame as well as memorabilia from Baltimore sports figures such as Orioles Ironman Cal Ripken Jr. and Johnny Unitas, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Baltimore Colts.
The collection is valued at $3.2 million in recent tax records.
"It was really an incredible museum with so much history and so much memorabilia," said Micah Kleid, 34, of Pikesville, who visited annually. "To just close and have no plans to open in the immediate future is just disappointing. I hope that they find a new place and I hope it's convenient for people to get to."
The museum signed a 20-year lease when it opened in 2005, Gibbons said. But two years later the stadium authority voted to forgive $444,000 in back rent and to lower the museum's $28,000 monthly rent. The authority also reduced the museum's lease from 20 years to five years with options to renew.
At that time, attendance at the museum had fallen drastically short of projections. Visitor traffic to the museum ranges from about 40,000 to 70,000 annually, Gibbons said.
In testimony before the state legislature this year, Gibbons said the attraction was challenged by Orioles attendance, restrictions on parking and signage, and the underperformance of the Hilton Hotel. The museum had been seeking money to renovate the structure to allow it to host bigger events, add a sports bar or restaurant and upgrade its signs.
That funding was contingent on lease negotiations.
The museum had been hoping to negotiate a five-year deal, with monthly payments of about $10,000 for its 22,000-square-foot space. The stadium authority, which wants to lease the property at market rate, was seeking about $17,000 a month in rent, Frenz said.
The board of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation voted to reject the offer Friday.
"We were willing to pay some rent but we just couldn't pay enough," said John A. Moag Jr., the museum's board chair, who also served as chair of the stadium authority under Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Moag said the museum intends to stay in Baltimore.
"I'm very optimistic, and I think the board is, too, about starting over," he said.
Others were less sanguine.
"Heartbreak hotel," said Del Ritchie, a former board member, who was involved in the opening of the Sports Legends Museum and now sits on its advisory board. "That's life. The almighty dollar wins out again."
Shawn Herne, a longtime curator at the museum who is now executive director of Hammond-Hardwood House in Annapolis, said the rates expected of a nonprofit were too high.
"As a nonprofit, you're fighting to just do your business," he said. "That's a lot of fundraising just to pay rent."
Fans said they weren't sure the museum would be able to recover from the loss of its prime space, described by Gibbons in 2003 as "the best location for a sports museum in the United States."
"Just the ease of getting there, just the history that's there, just that you can walk out of that building, a historical building with all the history there, and walk right into the stadium. … It was so special to be able to go right there," said Brad Spence of Havre de Grace, who took his children to the museum for the first time this summer. "The setting was what made it more special than just a museum. If you're not in that location, sometimes it's not as special."
The closure was effective immediately. The museum kept a Tuesday-Sunday schedule, so it would have been closed Monday anyway.
The Sports Legends Museum was Camden Station's largest tenant. Geppi's Entertainment Museum also rents space there, but that lease is set to expire in September 2016. Laura Bevans, the organization's director of operations, said she did not know what would happen at that point.
The stadium authority initially was seeking tenants to fill only the Sports Legends space, but it amended its notice to make the whole building available and extended the deadline for responses to Oct. 31.
Frenz declined to comment on any interest expressed so far, but said he hopes to have the empty space refilled within a year. He said the notice was deliberately vague in an effort to not limit the possibilities.
"If somebody came to us tomorrow and offered us attractive lease terms, then we probably would pursue that," he said.
Frenz said he expects to work with the city and the Orioles as the process moves forward. The building includes a historic train terminal that must be preserved.
The Orioles, who have reportedly begun planning for major upgrades to the stadium, did not respond to requests for comment.
The city has been pushing to see its west side revitalized, seeking developers for vacant, city-owned sites.
"We will be working closely with the Stadium Authority with regards to any possible new tenant that may come up and what's the best possible use, not only for the Stadium Authority but for the city as well," said Kaliope Parthemos, the chief of staff to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city's representative on the stadium authority board.