Columbus Center ponders options Mayor, board discuss aid to marine facility


Columbus Center board members met behind closed doors yesterday with the mayor and Baltimore's chief budget officer to discuss how to help the financially troubled marine science center.

None of the participants would discuss details of the 45-minute meeting at City Hall. But Stanley Heuisler, president of the Columbus Center Development Inc., intimated in an interview before the meeting that a city-financed cash bailout would be among the options that would be presented to the city.

"We have an operating budget where our expenses exceed our revenues. What we want to do is tell him what we think are the best of a series of options we are pursuing. Obviously, we are going to ask for his advice and to support us in those options," Heuisler said.

Though Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wouldn't discuss what happened at yesterday's meeting, he said earlier this week that he did not rule out a cash infusion for the center.

But Schmoke has been reluctant to hand over city dollars to faltering tourist attractions.

This year, just before City Life Museums closed because of low attendance, the mayor criticized the group for coming to the city for more money. He eventually gave in, but the money was too little, too late.

In the spring, the city lent the center $2 million to open its Hall of Exploration. That was in addition to $60 million that the city had already given to the Columbus Center -- which houses the Hall of Exploration, the Science and Technology Center and the University of Maryland's Center for Marine Biotechnology.

U.S., state money

The center also received more than $47.2 million from the federal government and $18.7 million from the state.

Since the spring opening of the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration, far fewer tourists than expected have shown interest in the multimillion-dollar high-tech hall of exhibition of marine biotechnology. The center has defaulted on a $6 million ++ loan after using money in a reserve fund to pay for operating expenses.

With millions at stake and a prime piece of Inner Harbor land occupied by the center, Heuisler is scrambling to come up with a turnaround plan -- with or without the city's help.

Keeping quiet

Only key members of the board are involved in the turnaround plan and all are keeping quiet about the options under consideration.

All board members, said Heuisler, have been instructed to keep mum about plan options. He said that within a few weeks, the plan will be unveiled.

But some of the options already are taking shape.

Next weekend, visitors to the National Aquarium will be able to purchase tickets there for the Columbus Center.

The aim is to tap into that highly successful tourist attraction for crossover appeal.

This week, some Columbus Center board members met with officials at the National Aquarium to see if the two organizations could work together.

"We were talking about what the future is going to hold and what we are doing so that we will be noncompetitive," Heuisler said.

Also under consideration is changing the name of the center. The criticism is that the current name doesn't tell tourists what the center is about.

"I think that there may be a new kind of snazzier name," Heuisler said. "But I've floated the concept, and some people were very upset with it."

Identity crisis

Central to the Columbus Center's financial crisis, some say, is that a clear identity has yet to be established.

Only $150,000 has been spent to market the marine science center. Another $150,000 was spent for opening day.

"We perhaps were so caught up in our product we underestimated the need for more lead time to explain to the public what we have had and what would be coming.

One of the center's shortfalls, Heuisler said, is that it was designed to attract a fraction of science lovers.

Middle and high school students were the targeted audience. Not enough students were responding to its appeal, Heuisler said.

Part of the turnaround plan is to attract younger science aficionados with simpler exhibits and interactive learning games that would appeal to elementary students.

Younger children

"Very clearly we chose a market segment that was a little tougher to reach and we underestimated the toughness it would take to attract them," Heuisler said. "There are now things for little kids to do. And there has been more sensitization of staff to spend more time with smaller kids and family groups."

The Hall of Exploration drew 48,118 visitors in its first four months -- 134,682 fewer than projected. The gap between actual and projected attendance cost the center more than $700,000 -- revenue it counted on to help cover operating costs.

As a result of the shortfall, the center had to tap into the reserve fund, thus defaulting on a $6 million loan from a consortium of lenders led by NationsBank. The center pays about $94,000 a month in principal and interest on the 10-year loan.

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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