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Sports museums suffering at gate

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles' losing streak may have more than one casualty.

Slumping attendance has left the city's two sports museums in the red, with a projected deficit of $600,000, according to the foundation that runs the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum and Sports Legends at Camden Yards.

To help ease the financial woes, the city's Board of Estimates took the unusual step yesterday of transferring $125,000 intended for renovations to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum into an operating grant - another sign that attractions outside the Inner Harbor are struggling.

The foundation attributed the expected deficit to Orioles' attendance figures dropping from a projected average of 3 million a year to nearly 1.5 million. According to Orioles statistics, 2.1 million tickets were sold last year, but Mike Gibbons, the museum's executive director, said museum officials estimated that the number of fans attending games was far lower.

Orioles officials did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday. A decade ago, the team gave $1 million to help get the Sports Legends museum off the ground.

Gibbons also attributed the projected deficit to the disruption caused by the construction of the Hilton convention center hotel, which has hampered pedestrian access to the museums.

But Gibbons said he views the completion of the hotel - set for August 2008 - as the light at the end of the tunnel.

"I believe that that is going to physically draw the Inner Harbor out to Camden Yards," he said. "I think it's going to create a synergy that we don't see right now."

The museums, with a combined annual budget of about $2 million, have reduced staff by 40 percent, Gibbons said. They now have about 20 full-time employees and hire part-time workers depending on the season.

"We've cut our budget, cut our expenses ... on our own, to make up for the difference," said Gibbons. "So what we're looking for and asked the city to help us with is a financial bridge."

Gibbons said the board of directors has matched the city's $125,000 grant with cash contributions. He said the museum expects to make up the rest of the projected deficit with an aggressive fundraising campaign and events such as the recent addition of a midweek lunch featuring a sports celebrity.

The sports museums are the most recent casualties of a tourist infrastructure that some say does not extend adequately beyond the Inner Harbor.

The Maryland Zoo, in Druid Hill Park, has built up a $3 million deficit during the fiscal year that ended in June and is seeking relief from the state.

And the City Life Museums closed in June 1997, $2.5 million in debt. The museums had hoped to attract 100,000 visitors annually, each paying a $4 fee, but drew only 45,000 in their closing year.

The weakness is one that downtown boosters acknowledge, and one they're trying to fix.

"One of our goals is to direct traffic from the Inner Harbor to outlying attractions and neighborhoods," said Mike Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership. "We want to promote the attractions that might not get the first look from out-of-town visitors."

Boosters hope to launch a shuttle that would enable tourists to park in one area and move around downtown without having to drive, Evitts said.

Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said the organization's focus is not the Inner Harbor alone. She agrees that better transportation would benefit the zoo, the museums and the city's neighborhoods.

"The Inner Harbor is a great place to begin the experience," she said. "But we have great neighborhoods and we have a lot of outlying attractions, so we are pushing people out. We agree that we need some sort of circular transportation so you just hop on and pay one price, a low fee, all day."

In the meantime, the foundation running the sports museums estimates that it could have an operating deficit of $250,000 to $600,000 for its next two fiscal years, which begin Oct. 1.

The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum opened in 1974 and for decades ran in the black, Gibbons said. But the opening of the Sports Legends museum in 2005, coupled with the slump in Orioles attendance, led to a loss.

"The Orioles have been losing for nine straight years," said Gibbons, who estimated that at least half of the museums' traffic comes from fans who attend games. "The last couple of years have been difficult."

Together, the museums had about 66,000 visitors last year; they would like to see the number reach 100,000, Gibbons said.

The financial troubles have forced the museum to temporarily forgo a renovation at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum that was to have started last fall. The renovation, to add space and access for the disabled, was originally expected to cost $850,000 but has ballooned to $1.3 million to $1.5 million, Gibbons said.

Construction will start as soon as the museums raise the needed money and get on solid operating footing, he said.

"To us, it would not make a lot of sense to move forward on the renovation until ... we are healthier financially," he said.

Museum attendance in four of the past six months has been up from the same period a year earlier, he noted, with the number of visitors last month 11.8 percent higher than in February 2006.

"The wild card is how the Orioles will play this year," Gibbons said, "and what kind of attendance they will have."

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