CAN THE POWER PLANT BE RECHARGED?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It seems a forgotten place, the brick behemoth that rises over the parade of tourists, the paddle boats crisscrossing the water, the twin glass pavilions of Harborplace.

On the north shore of the harbor where Baltimore built its $1 billion-a-year tourism industry, the old city-owned Power Plant stands as a symbol of unfulfilled promise, the place the downtown renaissance bypassed, like the kid nobody chose for the pickup game.

Except for some offices occupied by a sports-themed entertainment center whose plans to develop the Power Plant fell through two weeks ago, the prime piece of real estate has remained empty for five years. All the while, tourist attractions surrounding it have bustled with the commerce of 10 million visitors a year.

Today, as the city awaits yet another round of proposals, some wonder if any tenant will ever move into the red brick structure whose four towering smokestacks help define the waterfront skyline.

Everybody, it seems, has an opinion on what to do with the turn-of-the century plant, dormant since Six Flags Corp. moved out in 1990 after losing millions on an urban entertainment center and a nightclub at the site. Nobody, it seems, can sell city officials, potential lenders and investors on an idea.

What to do with the Power Plant?

"Blow the thing up," said Allan Prell, the WBAL radio talk show host, echoing the sentiments of a flood of callers during a recent three-hour show. All but two callers, he said, viewed the Power Plant as an eyesore not conducive to being anything but, well, a power plant.

"People are incredulous that there's an effort to save it," Mr. Prell said. "I can't imagine that once that thing is knocked down that there wouldn't be people fighting for that location. Millions of people visit the city every year and walk by the place, and you can't give it away. Doesn't that tell you something?"

But the city continues trying to find a tenant for the former power station that provided electricity for streetcars and later generated steam heat before closing and being purchased by the city in 1977.

So the bidding begins. Again. Some skepticism could be expected; after all, the city has reviewed more than two dozen proposals for the site in four separate rounds of bidding. The plant has suffered major identity crisis: Is it best suited for a nightclub or a hotel, a speakeasy or an art museum, an office building or an urban winery? Or none of the above?

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, like hoteliers and owners of nearby attractions and businesses, is growing increasingly impatient for answer.

Since financing for the proposed $33 million Sports Center USA fell through, the mayor, expressing a "great deal of urgency," said he wants bids within 60 days and that he's confident the city will find a suitable tenant. The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, says plans call for a "family-entertainment center" to fill the cavernous Power Plant.

Though the BDC won't start accepting formal bids until until tomorrow, the site has generated considerable renewed interest. Among the early potential contenders that have contacted the agency: a law firm; a nightclub; gambling casino officials (though the mayor has ruled out a casino at the site); an entertainment complex; the neighboring National Aquarium in Baltimore and a biotechnology firm.

One of the more ambitious prospects comes from David Cordish, a Baltimore developer who has made his mark with urban entertainment projects elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Cordish declined to provide specifics but confirmed he has discussed with the mayor his plans to devise a "major proposal" for an entertainment complex designed to draw tourists day and night, while complementing attractions such as Harborplace, the aquarium, and the Columbus Center.

"It's very important that it be utilized as a tourist attraction," Mr. Cordish said. "The remaking of Baltimore as a tourist mecca is the salvation for our city. It's the salvation for our tax base, for our job base."

An ugly, useless, hopeless Power Plant? Not to Mr. Cordish.

"It's a beautiful structure," he said. "Obviously, the real estate it 00 sits on is attractive as well."

The Cordish Co. president has developed a reputation nationwide for revitalizing difficult urban projects.

His latest project, a $22 million transformation of a now-vacant convention center in downtown Houston, is scheduled to open next year as a multi-venue nightclub and restaurant complex. The 150,000 square-foot Bayou Place will contain 13 nightclubs and four restaurants.

Others have different ideas:

* Baltimore businessman John Giorgilli -- who owns a Towson after-hours club and a Dallas nightclub -- envisions an entertainment complex and nightclub, possibly including a Hard Rock Cafe and movie theaters. Mr. Giorgilli said he has broached the idea of a short-term lease and would bring other tenants in. But he complains that the mayor has brushed aside the idea while pinning his hopes on the sports complex, whose exclusive development rights expired last July.

"My exact words to Mayor Schmoke were, 'You got the biggest boarded-up house right here in Baltimore, that Power Plant,' " Mr. Giorgilli said. "This is one of the biggest flops of his campaign in my eyes."

* A Seattle biotech firm, ZymoGenetics, has expressed interest in converting the plant into a lab. Last year, the subsidiary of Denmark's Novo Nordisk transformed a former steam plant in Seattle into a research and development complex.

* David M. Pittenger, executive director of the National Aquarium, now working on a 10-year master plan, says he's eyeing one of the three buildings comprising the Power Plant as a possible site for exhibits. With crowds sometimes forced to wait up to two hours to get into the aquarium, he said, the nearby plant could provide an ideal spot for patrons to take in other attractions.

* Businessman Leonard Sachs, who also serves as chairman of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, said he's considering pitching some sort of entertainment complex but hasn't worked out specifics.

Anyone considering the site faces the daunting challenge of transforming the old plant into something it was never created to be. Consisting of three separate, interconnected buildings, the plant covers nearly an acre. In parts of it, ceilings rise nearly 75 feet.

The city has spent more than $100,000 a year just for basic maintenance of the building. Sports Center Inc. paid $11,000 to fix the air-conditioning in offices it occupied, a tiny fraction of the entire complex. A few years back, water pipes burst, damaging floors. Pigeons replaced tourists and left droppings behind.

On a sultry morning last week, just beneath an awning and a "Welcome" sign at an entrance, a homeless man covered by an old brown jacket slept on cardboard boxes and a throw rug. A few other vagrants sat outside. Graffiti marred walls. Behind locked doors, the interior appeared dusty and dingy.

Huge neon letters spelling "The Power Plant" in orange and yellow hues still hang high on the brick wall facing the harbor, a reminder of better days.

Six Flags Corp. sunk $40 million into this place and did its best to capitalize on the odd shapes and vast spaces. Its Power Plant beckoned with a "time machine," a "Hall of Inventions," a Circus of the Mysterious, a City of the Future, a submarine. But dismal attendance prompted the company to switch to a radically different approach, the huge disco P. T. Flagg's. By 1990, five years after moving in, Six Flags' operation here went out of business, and the city purchased the lease.

The plant's track record -- or, more precisely, lack thereof -- certainly makes it less appealing to would-be financiers for prospective tenants. That poses a major obstacle: The structure lends itself to non-traditional, typically unproven uses, which translates to high risk for some investors and lenders.

Joseph A. DeFrancis, one of the partners of Sports Center USA, said the lack of a proven product, more than any other factor, scared off lenders and ultimately sunk the high-tech sports center project. "It wasn't like trying to get financing for a baseball team where potential lenders or other sources of financing could go look at a lot of other experiences," said Mr. DeFrancis, owner of Laurel and Pimlico racetracks.

The site's location in the heart of Baltimore's tourist center may have helped sell financiers, Mr. DeFrancis said. But, he added: "On the other hand, given the failure of everything that had been in that site, you could argue it was the site" that prevented the group of investors, led by developer Lynda O'Dea, from getting the necessary financing.

That the project fell through came as no surprise to Christopher C. Hartman, the former executive secretary of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "I think the issue now is, is the building do-able [as a site to be developed], and I think for seven years we've been getting the answers that say doubtful, doubtful, doubtful."

THE POWER PLANT: NEARLY A CENTURY

* Size: 106,230 feet, in three separate, interconnected buildings.

History

* 1900-1909: Built by United Railways and Electric Co. to supply electricity to streetcars. Great Fire of 1904 nearly destroyed plant; rebuilt in 1904.

* 1921: Sold to Consolidated Gas and Electric Light and Power Co., predecessor to Baltimore Gas & Electric, and converted to generate steam heat.

* 1973: BGE takes plant out of service.

* June 1977: City agrees to buy abandoned Power Plant for $1.65 million and solicit bids for its development.

* November 1980: Boston developer Mortimer Zuckerman abandons plans to develop 300-room hotel.

* July 1985: Six Flags Corp. opens urban entertainment center called The Power Plant.

* January 1987: Six Flags converts Power Plant into disco, P.T. Flagg's.

* January 1990: Six Flags vacates Power Plant.

* July 1992: City accepts proposal from Sports Center USA for sports-themed entertainment center.

* July 1995: Financing for sports complex falls through.

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