Children's museum gets new leader

Nearly two years after he was hired to save Baltimore's foundering children's museum, Alan M. Leberknight has stepped down as president and chief executive officer even as Port Discovery remains in a financial quandary.

Bryn Parchman, who had been chief operating officer, was selected Tuesday to replace him effective immediately, Port Discovery announced yesterday.


Leberknight's departure comes at a time when the museum faces a $1 million deficit after several attempts at a turnaround have failed. This spring, Port Discovery board Chairman Douglas Becker said that if the museum, which leases its Market Place home from the city for $1 a year, could not raise sufficient funds, it would be forced to close.

Leberknight, a retired Towson University business school dean, said yesterday that he was leaving because he wanted to "wind down" but he believed Port Discovery could survive. He said he will continue to play an active role in solving the museum's money woes, serving as a volunteer on its board and committees for development and finance.


"If I was at my wit's end, I would ... just leave completely," he said. "I have an ethical and moral obligation to stay on and continue to contribute all I have."

But the announcement disappointed at least one Baltimore official.

"I find it appalling that he would retire," said Comptroller Joan M. Pratt. "If he really felt he could turn the situation around, it would be better he do it in the capacity of president and CEO than as a volunteer.

"How much influence can he have as a volunteer?"

Turnaround plan

Pratt was the lone dissenting vote in a 4-1 approval of a turnaround plan museum officials presented to the city's Board of Estimates last month. The plan depends largely on attracting a commercial tenant to sublease part of the city-owned facility.

Both Leberknight and Becker emphasized yesterday that when Leberknight, who came on board on an interim basis, consented to stay on, both knew it would not be long-term.

"He had stayed longer than what was expected and he's been committed to this organization," Becker said.


'Seamless transition'

Becker, who is chairman and CEO of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., said the museum's board voted Tuesday to promote Parchman to the top job because "we really needed someone who could offer a seamless transition."

Yesterday, Parchman said she intended to stick to the plan presented to the city and would not implement any new strategies.

"We have a financial plan that we've retooled to get us to a balanced budget and we will continue to follow that," she said.

Port Discovery, built at a cost of $32 million, has never met attendance projections and has seen the number of visitors sag since its opening.

Attendance fell to 268,000 in 2001, 35 percent below its first full year of operation in 1999. It rose 1 percent last year to 271,000.


Leberknight said yesterday that the museum experienced a slowdown during the winter snowstorms, but that this summer's attendance has been much like last year's.

To cut costs, the museum has pursued many different strategies, including cutting staff. It explored moving the museum to smaller sites and subleasing its entire 80,000-square-foot building to other tenants.

Subsequently, it struck a deal with the Baltimore schools to lease half its space for a specialized tourism academy for high school students.

Arrangement killed

The school system would have paid $360,000 in rent and $180,000 in maintenance costs. But those costs - and an estimated $8 million cost of renovation - prompted state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to kill that agreement in April.

As part of its efforts to draw more visitors, Port Discovery has also created more exhibits for younger children.


Marketing chief

Parchman was Port Discovery's vice president of marketing before she became chief operating officer. She has also served on the boards of children's museums in Richmond, Va., and in Minneapolis.

Parchman said she still believes the museum can be turned around and that's why she took the position, despite its financial troubles.

"I believe in what children's museums are all about ... and I believe that Port Discovery should be here," she said.