Papal visit to put facility on map


When Pope John Paul II visits Baltimore in October, he may find himself sharing the limelight with another famous world traveler, Christopher Columbus.

In recent weeks, the Columbus Center, the Inner Harbor marine research center named after the 15th-century explorer, has become the local command center for Archdiocese of Baltimore representatives and others preparing for the Oct. 8 visit of Pope John Paul II.

That temporary use may pay off in the form of international exposure for Baltimore's newest attraction, which combines laboratories for research with exhibits that help explain the underlying science .

Laboratories on the east side of the building opened last spring and a Science and Technology Education Center will open Sept. 8. The public exhibit area is still under construction beneath the white canopy on the west side of the building and due to open next April.

Christopher Columbus and Pope John Paul II may seem like "strange bedfellows," admits Father Michael White, program director for the Papal Visit to Baltimore. But the chance to use the Columbus Center has been a blessing for the archdiocese because it is a pleasant work space and an ideal vantage point from which to show off Baltimore to visiting journalists, he said.

"Most cities, when they set up a press center for a papal visit, use a big ballroom in a hotel," Father White said. "You could be in Cleveland or Baltimore or New York, and not know the difference. . . . We thought, wouldn't it be nice if we could have the press come to a place that is incredibly distinctive?"

Columbus Center was appealing because it's close to the events in which the pope will participate, easy to find and a striking symbol of Baltimore's revitalization," said Bill Blaul, associate program director for communications for the papal visit.

"It's brand new. It says Inner Harbor. It says there's energy on the water. What better place to locate than that?"

For the past month, wharf-level exhibit space on the west side of Columbus Center has been converted to offices and meeting space for the dozens of John Paul II Baltimore team members who are coordinating the pope's 10-hour visit.

Inside this "papal visit office," white walls are decorated with red and yellow ribbons (the papal colors are red, white and yellow -- colors that also appear on Maryland's flag). Portraits of the pope and Cardinal William H. Keeler are displayed near the entrance. Silk-screened pillows on a sofa in the reception area bear the likeness of the pope and the papal crest. A lunch area has been dubbed "Chez John Paul."

In this setting, volunteers answer calls to the "Pope John Paul II Hotline," (1-800-456-5353). Members of the Pope John Paul II Baltimore steering committee gather at a conference table with a view of the downtown skyline as a backdrop.

A week before the pope's visit, Columbus Center is also expected to become the check-in point and base of operations for several hundred journalists from around the world.

Upper level space beneath Columbus Center's canopy will be set aside for writing and film editing. Computers linked to the Internet will be available for journalists, and a hospitality area will be set up to supply them with food and beverages.

Cheryl Hudgins, public information coordinator for Columbus Center, said final arrangements are being made for the media to be accommodated in part of the Science and Technology Education section that opens in September.

She added that the John Paul II Baltimore team is renting 2,830 square feet for $500 a month for the operations center. She said that space would have been unoccupied until next spring, when it would begin to house rotating exhibits.

"We're glad to have them here," she said of the papal entourage. "Because the pope is coming, the eyes of the world will be on Baltimore. This is an opportunity to showcase one of Baltimore's newest projects, as we showcase the city."

The idea of using Columbus Center came from Edie Brown, director of community and public relations for the Baltimore Arena.

"The Inner Harbor is so beautiful," Ms. Brown said. "We just thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for people to see and feel Baltimore."

The pope won't actually come to Columbus Center. The closest he will get is Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he will preside over a mass, and the corner of Light and Pratt streets, part of his parade route.

Mr. Blaul said there is even a theological rationalization for the use of Columbus Center.

"This pope has been keen on the notion of ushering the church into the next millennium," he said. And the futuristic appearance of Columbus Center "almost says 21st century."

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