Balloon gives highest view of Baltimore


Baltimore's Top of the World Observation Deck may be closed after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, but concern over terrorism hasn't kept down the Hi-Flyer balloon or its passengers.

Between 20,000 people and 30,000 people have taken rides in the helium balloon that offers panoramic views of Baltimore's Inner Harbor - and many of them have done so after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center.

In all, the balloon went up 2,144 times between July 19 and Nov. 9, according to computer records maintained by its operator, Sky High of Maryland. Each trip had an average of 10 to 15 passengers, operators estimate. On its busiest day, the balloon carried more than 700 passengers aloft.

All of which translates to a successful inaugural season for Lee Raskin, the retired investment manager who founded Sky High of Maryland.

"We're happy with the fact that we opened and we did really well," he said. "The ride works beautifully. Everyone knows it's there. It's an icon for the city."

Tethered to the ground by a steel cable, the balloon is stationed on city-owned property at the southwest corner of President and Baltimore streets, next to the Port Discovery children's museum.

Sky High of Maryland offers three rides an hour, each lasting 15 to 20 minutes. A 10-ton winch lets the cable in and out, enabling the helium-filled balloon to rise and return to earth.

When it reaches its maximum height of 340 feet above street level, the balloon's circular gondola is the highest public observation point in the city.

The observation deck on the 27th floor of Baltimore's World Trade Center is actually 45 feet higher than the balloon's gondola - 385 feet above street level. But it will remain closed until city and state officials come up with a plan for reopening with improved security.

Raskin said balloon ridership was heaviest in July and August and dropped off after Labor Day. As a result, the Hi-Flyer recently shifted from a seven-day-a-week schedule to three days a week.

It now flies Friday, Saturday and Sunday - from noon to 5 p.m. For Thanksgiving Week, it will operate on Wednesday and Thursday as well, weather permitting.

Raskin said the seven-day-a-week schedule should resume in the spring.

"We really only had half a summer this year," he said. "We're anxious to get started [back on the seven-day-schedule] on Opening Day. It'll be a good long spring and summer for us."

Second hat for Gilmore

Bill Gilmore, longtime executive director of Baltimore's Office of Promotion, has become interim director of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, after the resignation of Clair Segal.

Gilmore will divide his time between the two agencies while a search is under way for Segal's successor.

Honors to House of Ruth

The House of Ruth in Baltimore received national recognition this month when it won a 2001 MetLife Foundation Award for Excellence in Affordable Housing.

MetLife's awards are given annually to organizations that succeed in providing innovative housing and support services for low-income people.

The House of Ruth has 29 units of "transitional" housing for low-income and homeless victims of domestic violence and their children. Services include mental health programs, job training, drug treatment, parenting, stress management classes and a child development center.

The House of Ruth was recognized in the Supportive Housing category. It received its $15,000 award during the Enterprise Foundation's annual Network Conference in Washington on Nov. 8.

"Battered women need a broad array of supports in order to break through the trauma of abuse and build new lives for themselves and their families," said Carole Alexander, House of Ruth's executive director.

"Organizations that provide affordable housing and services are absolutely essential to low-income people," said Bart Harvey, chairman and chief executive officer of the Enterprise Foundation. "This year's award winners can be held up as models that help our neighborhoods and cities remain stable."

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