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Port Discovery reduces staff as admissions fall in 2nd year


Port Discovery, Baltimore's $32 million interactive children's museum which opened in December 1998, is converting some of its full-time staff to part-time in the face of a falloff in attendance.

Nine visitor services employees were told Friday that they would be moved to part-time positions.

"It's a young institution," said Kathy Dwyer Southern, president and chief executive officer of the museum. "We're every day learning more about what our visitor flow is. We're simply trying to project what the year looks like, and better to do it now than to wait until later."

A cool, rainy summer and an expected second-year dip in visitors contributed to the decision to do some belt-tightening in the $5.6 million operating budget for fiscal 2000-2001, Southern said. The changes leave the museum with 60 full-time employees and 42 part-time. Another 42 volunteers help staff the Market Street museum.

Part-time employees enable museum officials to deploy staff better, reducing the numbers of people working the floors during slow afternoon hours, after school groups typically leave and before after-school activities begin, museum officials said.

Admissions during the first year were about 415,000 -- under the 475,000 projected. Although 400,000 had been projected for this year, that number has been revised to 350,000. Between January and August of this year, the museum had 228,000 visitors.

"Everyone knows there's a drop in the second year," Southern said. "The question is, what's reasonable? If you simply sit there and don't bring in anything new, you could fall off and stay fallen off. But we're not doing that."

For her part, Southern plans to be fiscally conservative -- this year and probably next.

"You can get all the consultants you want, and you're still feeling your way in the first year," said James C. Hunt, communications and development director at Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit. "In real life, 350,000 and you're projecting 400,000 is not bad. The numbers they're drawing now still put them in the top of all Baltimore attractions."

The Maryland Science Center went through challenging times in the mid-1970s when it moved to the Inner Harbor, Hunt said. "The Science Center was the pioneer," he said. "There was nothing around them. They really struggled."

The situation was so dire that visitors to the harbor used to point at the Science Center building and mistake it for Fort McHenry, Hunt said.

And despite the failure of other high-profile projects such as the Baltimore City Life Museums on President Street and the Inner Harbor's Columbus Center, Hunt said he is not concerned about Port Discovery's future because of its strong leadership and city support.

"I don't think there's any reason for people to be worried," he said. "I think it's just sophomore slump. They'll pick it back up."

Southern is optimistic that the museum's new exhibit plans along with nearby development will help.

For instance, Body Odyssey, a traveling exhibit that allows children to climb a giant tongue and work their way through the digestive system, has just opened. Next year, an exhibit called Robot Zoo will bring large animal robots.

And a new permanent exhibit, slated to open next summer, will be called PD Kid Club and take the form of a gigantic treehouse. Visitors during the next few months will be invited to make suggestions on its design.

Outside, there are enough new projects planned to give Market Place a new image, Southern said.

The Cordish Co. is creating Power Plant Live, which will add a stage to the plaza in front of the museum, along with restaurants, cafes and maybe an ice cream shop, to be completed in the spring. Sky High of Maryland will open a 110-foot tethered helium balloon attraction that will rise 450 feet in the air, allowing passengers a panoramic view of Baltimore starting in late spring. The museum will sell combined tickets for the museum and the ride, which holds 25 people.

At Market Place and Pratt Street, Pennsylvania-based Kravco Inc. has planned a development that will feature a 250-room hotel, office and retail space.

"The whole area becomes a destination," Southern said. "All of that is going to help the museum. Do I wish it had all been in place when we opened? You betcha."

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