Senate panel votes $20 million for Columbus Center


WASHINGTON -- A proposed marine science and exploration center planned for Baltimore's Inner Harbor got a major boost yesterday when a key Senate committee approved $20 million in construction costs, twice the amount Congress granted the project last year.

The Appropriations Committee backed the funding one day after Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., slipped the amount for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration into the budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Ms. Mikulski chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA and other independent agencies.

The subcommittee approved her spending bill for those agencies Wednesday.

Her subcommittee's bill was characterized by strong support for NASA's planned space station and other space projects.

"The Christopher Columbus Center will be a national leader in biotechnology and enable Maryland to remain on the cutting edge of scientific developments," Ms. Mikulski said.

Should the construction funds survive a final vote on the Senate floor, the measure would then have to be reconciled in a conference with the House.

The House did not include any money for the center in its version of the bill.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, attempted to set aside some money for the project in a spending bill last month but -- because of the harsh fiscal climate -- members decided against funding any pork-barrel projects.

"We plan to work to insure that [$20 million] stays in conference," said an aide to Mr. Hoyer.

The proposed Columbus Center, slated for Piers 5 and 6 and expected to include a marine biotechnology center and a marine archaeological center, is expected to cost some $175 million in federal, state, city and private funds.

Last year Congress approved $10 million toward engineering and construction for the center from two separate spending bills.

Another $1.5 million in planning money was approved the previous year.

Groundbreaking is expected to be this fall, said Stan Heuisler, editor of Baltimore Magazine and chairman of the executive committee formed to develop the project.

"Kudos to the Isabella of the project," Mr. Heuisler said of Ms. Mikulski, evoking the name of the Spanish queen who supported the 15th-century explorer for whom the center is named.

Mr. Heuisler termed the $20 million an "extraordinary commitment."

Besides the federal money, the project already has received some $2 million in state funds and commitments of land from the city.

Mr. Heuisler said project planners expect to hire an executive director in the fall, who will put together a fund-raising plan for private donations.

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