Baltimore's new museum for children is not just a new museum for children.
When Port Discovery opens Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting and a parade led by the Ravens marching band, it will be charged with two missions:
To be a cheeky, Disney-infused "edu-tainment" center where children have a blast as they learn and dream.
To be a $32 million high-voltage jump-start for the city's economically troubled east side.
Port Discovery, one of the largest children's museums in the country, is promoted as the cutting-edge brainchild of an unprecedented partnership between Disney Imagineering and educators.
Its board estimates that the 80,000-square-foot museum will draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, boost the Maryland economy by at least $14.5 million a year and generate 600 new jobs.
"Give it some time to be marketed well," says M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "It will be seen as an equal to Baltimore's best other attractions."
With Baltimore teetering on the brink of a "second renaissance," as Brodie and others profess, a lot is at stake. Located downtown at 34 Market Place -- where retail and entertainment businesses have failed repeatedly -- the museum is considered a linchpin for redevelopment.
The city wants to envelop Port Discovery with other family-friendly attractions at the neighboring Brokerage, a failed
office complex, and on a nearby Inner Harbor tract owned by Baltimore City Community College.
The Cordish Co., which redeveloped the Inner Harbor's Power Plant and has been selected by the Baltimore Development Corp. to revitalize the Brokerage, has said it would like to lure tenants such as Zainy Brainy, Discovery Zone or Nickelodeon.
Kravco Co., the Philadelphia-based team selected by Baltimore City Community College to develop one of the last open lots along the Inner Harbor, has proposed an office and retail tower that might contain a Disney store and a large book and music store.
The idea is to create natural links to the Inner Harbor, to the Market Place retail center two blocks north and to the historic Jonestown and Little Italy neighborhoods to the east.
The city's East Side Task Force envisions tourists strolling from block to block through attractive landscaping -- perhaps similar to the banks of daffodils that greet Inner Harbor visitors farther west -- distinctive crosswalks, colorful signs and appealing street-level retail outlets and restaurants.
The timing appears right for Port Discovery's debut. The museum opens on the heels of the restored Power Plant's success as glitzy new home to ESPN Zone, Barnes & Noble bookstore and Hard Rock Cafe.
Three hotels are in various stages of development for the area, and the Maryland Science Center is planning a multimillion-dollar expansion.
The key hurdle for the plan is getting visitors to cross busy Pratt Street and venture north to Market Place.
With its history of underdeveloped real estate and sense of isolation, this woebegone turf presents a psychological barrier to out-of-towners. Also, there is much to keep them busy closer to the Inner Harbor.
"The success of the Inner Harbor is so powerful in its own way, which is great," Brodie says, but "the other side of the coin is
people tend to huddle there."
Port Discovery, he says, is the magnet that will draw visitors across the street.
Brodie also anticipates that Port Discovery will help Cordish attract new tenants to the Brokerage and be a "goad for improvements at the Harbor Park movie theater and the Baja Beach Club," which border Market Place.
The history of failed endeavors at and around the Port Discovery site, however, has left even stalwart urbanites feeling cynical about downtown's future.
The museum's building was erected early this century to house a wholesale fish market; the market moved to the suburbs in 1984. The site's last incarnation, a cluster of nightclubs called the Fishmarket, closed in 1989. Across the street, the City Life Museums complex closed in 1997 for want of visitors, and on East Pratt, the Hall of Exploration at the Columbus Center also closed last year after seven months; it drew only a quarter of the visitors expected.
"There's always a risk," Brodie says, but he cites reasons that Port Discovery has an advantage over other failed efforts. Unlike the Hall of Exploration and the City Life Museums, Port Discovery can profit from a distinct identity. More than 50 children's museums have been pivotal parts of downtown revitalization projects across the United States. Their track record greatly improves prospects for Port Discovery.
Also, paid for by private and public contributions, Port Discovery will open debt free, except for money borrowed against the pledges that have been made. The Hall of Exploration and the City Life Museums both opened with debt.
Brodie is also heartened that Port Discovery depends not on one source of support, but on a "powerful combination of city and other private and public folks."
David Pittenger, executive director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore and an East Side Task Force chairman, dismisses skepticism by reminding that there were naysayers in the mid-1970s when the idea to build an aquarium at the Inner Harbor was floated. " 'How could that possibly work?' people said," according to Pittenger.
The aquarium, which opened in 1981, combined with the Harborplace retail complex, which opened the year before, launched the Inner Harbor's revival. Today, the aquarium attracts 1.6 million visitors a year.
Reinvigorating Port Discovery's immediate surroundings would be the first step to reconnecting the museum's neighborhood to the east side, severed from downtown over time by various transportation and urban-renewal projects.
The east side's Jonestown and Fells Point were once the heart of Baltimore, along with Baltimore Town, where Port Discovery and Market Place are today. The three towns were consolidated and incorporated as the city of Baltimore in 1797.
But the east side's fortunes began plummeting after the construction in 1953 of Flag House Courts, a high-rise public housing development, closed through streets and disrupted the historic district's building scale.
In the early '80s, buildings along the Jones Falls were razed to make way for Interstate 83, destroying the community's sense of unity.
From the perspective of Dwight Warren, executive director of the McKim Community Association, an East Baltimore organization, Port Discovery will be a key link to new recognition of his community.
"We hope that when it brings in the tourists, they will discover something about Jonestown that they didn't know before," Warren says. "It's a place for kids to play; it's a place for historians to marvel, and it's a place where families are growing up and living, and a good mix of industry complements it all."
Ultimately, Warren says, Port Discovery's success will be measured in terms of the programs and activities it offers Jonestown's children:
"We want it to be a museum our kids really call their museum," says Warren, who has collaborated with Port Discovery's staff since the museum's inception.
Port Discovery will be good for all of Baltimore, says Carroll Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. The museum "will certainly start creating an image for those who have not before thought of Baltimore as a family destination."
Pub Date: 12/27/98