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Port Discovery to stay put, rent out more space

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a deal designed to put Baltimore's money-losing children's museum on solid financial footing, Port Discovery officials revealed yesterday a rescue plan that would allow the attraction to remain at its current Market Place home while leasing half its space to a city high school.

The plan - a reversal of earlier proposals to move to a waterfront location - calls for the attraction to shrink by more than a third and to lease the freed-up space to the city public schools, already a tenant.

This plan, which officials said came together in recent weeks, supplants an earlier proposal to move the children's museum to the Columbus Center's long-vacant Hall of Exploration on the Inner Harbor.

Museum officials also had entertained the idea of joining forces with an existing attraction, such as the Maryland Science Center or the Visionary Arts Museum.

"I still think we could have made some of the other options work," Douglas L. Becker, chairman of the Port Discovery board, said yesterday. "We're saying this is the best thing for us. But it was not an obvious option."

Becker said costs of a move to the Columbus Center, including rent, were too high.

The tentative deal outlined yesterday calls for the school system to sublease 50,000 to 55,000 square feet for 20 years to house the specialized high school that opened in the Port Discovery building this year.

The deal is subject to approval by the school board, the city's Board of Estimates, the Maryland Department of Education and the state Board of Public Works.

Port Discovery officials hope to get at least some of those approvals next month.

Becker declined to disclose financial terms of the lease with the school system, saying they would become public when the matter goes to the Board of Estimates.

The plan will enable Port Discovery to reach a break-even point soon, said Becker, who also is chairman and chief executive officer of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. But he was not specific about when financial stability would be attained, saying it could be this fiscal year or next.

Key to the deal is the expansion of the museum's existing 80,000 square feet to about 100,000 square feet.

This would be achieved in part by adding another level in certain areas.

Port Discovery would compress into about 50,000 square feet - about the same space it would have had under the Hall of Exploration plan. The high school and the museum would also share some space.

"We've looked at many locations, and this is the best financial deal for the school and a wonderful location for our business partners," said Kathleen M. Floyd, director of some of the school system's specialized academies, including the one at the museum.

That high school, the National Academy Foundation School for Finance, Tourism and Technology, moved into Port Discovery in August under a one-year lease with about 90 students.

Eventually, the school would take over the museum's atrium and third floor with 400 students by adding a grade each year through 2005.

The school's presence at the site has prompted two lawsuits, a taxpayer action and one filed by David Cordish, developer of the adjacent Power Plant Live entertainment complex.

Cordish sued rival developer C. William Struever and his development firm in Baltimore Circuit Court, alleging that Struever, who is vice chairman of the city school board, had pushed expansion of the school at Port Discovery to harm Cordish's project.

Cordish criticized the latest plan yesterday, saying it has evaded the normal planning process, and vowed to pursue his lawsuit. He also plans to object to the Port Discovery lease proposal once it reaches the Board of Estimates.

"It's illegal," he said. "It's inappropriate, and it's a shame for the city."

Becker said he was aware that Cordish, who wanted to rent space in the museum, opposes the school.

"I think he wants to be here, and he's made it very clear that he doesn't want a school here," Becker said. "I hope that he will support us in doing what's right for the community."

Economics are at the heart of Port Discovery's decision, based on factors that became clear as the various scenarios were studied, Becker said:

It would have cost about $5 million to move Port Discovery. Moving just the museum's multi-level Kid Works climbing exhibit would have cost $500,000.

There was no guarantee that a move would generate additional visitors.

The museum would have had to close four to 12 months under the various other proposals.

There was concern that an alliance with another attraction could result in Port Discovery being overshadowed by the other museum.

Last summer, officials at the $32 million children's museum said they felt that a move to the Inner Harbor waterfront would increase its visibility and boost attendance at the attraction, which has suffered steadily declining attendance

"We felt that the only way to get a lot more visitors was to change the location," Becker said. "We felt that was the only variable that had not been tested."

But the visibility issue became less significant as the museum was able to shore up its attendance numbers, Becker said.

"It's not that I wouldn't have loved to roll the dice and see the impact on attendance that a move would have had," Becker said.

"But, it became less important as our own numbers started to rise."

The museum closed the year with attendance of 271,000, up 1 percent from the 268,000 a year earlier at a time when many of the most high-profile harbor attractions lost attendance.

Although the Columbus Center proposal was interesting to museum officials, the cost of the improvements was higher than anticipated and the number of things that could have been moved fewer than expected, Becker said.

"Because we had negotiated a price with the Columbus Center that was predicated upon us getting top dollar for this building, there wasn't a lot of room in the formula," he said.

The schools represent the kind of ideal tenant that couldn't be found in the private sector, museum officials said.

"If you think of all the holidays, it's a dream come true," said Alan M. Leberknight, Port Discovery's president and chief executive. "They're closed exactly when we need more space."

Port Discovery now plans to use about $2 million raised in a recent capital campaign for the expansion of its exhibits, including an area for children age 4 and younger, rather than for the move, officials said.

"I have no doubt that we'll be able to raise more money," Becker said yesterday.

"This announcement puts us in the position of being able to say what has been a $1 million-plus loss since inception has been eliminated. That's the kind of news donors are waiting for."

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