By Erin Bryant and Chris Yakaitis
ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said Wednesday they were concerned about dropping attendance at a handful of Baltimore attractions, and Ehrlich floated the possibility of appearing with the comptroller in one final television promotional spot before the two leave office.
“I could think of some really nice ads done by a certain governor, comptroller, mayor, that might work,” Ehrlich said at a Board of Public Works meeting.
The governor and comptroller singled out Sports Legends at Camden Yards, Geppi’s Entertainment Museum and The Maryland Zoo as three places in need of better publicity.
The off-the-cuff discussion came during a presentation by the Maryland Stadium Authority as Schaefer began asking about attendance at the two museums next to Oriole Park. Both Sports Legends and Geppi’s occupy the Camden Station building, just across from the stadium’s northern Eutaw Street entrance.
“These are world-class museums, and the attendance is hurting,” Ehrlich said.
The unexpected attention was welcomed by the Babe Ruth Museum, which manages Sports Legends as well as the nearby Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. Mike Gibbons, a spokesman for the museums, said a lack of public awareness, declining attendance at Orioles games and heavy construction across the street have combined to dent admissions.
“If the State of Maryland and the City and Baltimore can do anything that would help, man, that would be terrific,” he said.
Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, which opened in September just above Sports Legends, could not be reached for comment.
But at the meeting Alison L. Asti, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said Geppi’s has not had “as many [visitors] as anyone would have hoped.”
She said the museum had asked the stadium authority – which controls the Camden Station lease – for an adjustment in the rent.
In broaching the subject, Schaefer suggested the state hasn’t done enough to promote its cultural properties and has instead focused on revenue generators.
“The zoo needs help, that museum needs help, they all need help. And the only one that got it is the lottery because they bring in money,” he said.
Asti noted the Camden Yards museums are private entities that manage their own marketing.
But Gibbons said those publicity efforts are difficult with the museums’ limited budgets and name recognition.
“They have to go through a branding process so that the local community, as well as out-of-town visitors, understand what they are and where they are,” he said.
Gibbons said an additional challenge has come from construction on a downtown hotel complex that has torn up two blocks across from Camden Yards and diverted foot traffic away from the museums.
And the lackluster performance of the Orioles over the past nine years has hurt “the whole tourism industry downtown,” he said. “If the Orioles are competitive and playing good ball and drawing good numbers, that’s a healthy thing for the whole downtown economy.”
Gibbons viewed this year’s dip in attendance as part of the growing pains. “Our goal is to get to August of 2008,” he said. “That’s when the new convention headquarters hotel opens across the street.”
Other museums in the Baltimore area reported healthy attendance figures, but also held out hope that the new downtown convention facilities would boost revenues.
Courtney Wilson, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum, said he notices “a lot of visitors with convention center badges on,” when conferences are being held.
He suggested the decrease in visitors to some Baltimore museums this year could be a result of fewer conferences at the Baltimore Convention Center.
“I’ve heard from colleagues that their numbers are off quite a bit over the last year and to a lesser degree for the year before,” said Wilson.
The powerhouse of the city’s attractions – the National Aquarium of Baltimore – that gets the most Baltimore visitors has experienced a slight decrease in the number of visitors this year.
“We actually have had a little dip in our visitation,” said Molly Foyle, director of media relations.
But not all museums have experienced a downturn – the number of visitors at the Walters Art Museum actually increased this October, according to Public Relations Manager Amy Mannarino.
While the museum had averaged 17,000 people this month from 2001 to 2005, they had seen a marked increase in visitors this year. The Walters had more than 4,500 additional visitors this October.
Mannarino attributes the increase to the Walters and Baltimore Museum of Art’s move to waive admission fees in a little over a month ago.
Ehrlich’s comment about a TV ad at Wednesday’s meeting was an apparent reference to a spot that he and Schaefer appeared in last year – and for which both took some political heat. The ad promoted Maryland tourism and showed the governor and comptroller packing a family’s car for a trip to the beach.
Before committing to any plan, Ehrlich said he would call for the owners and managers of the museums to attend the next Board of Public Works meeting to “air this out.” “Maybe this could be the beginning of a free advertising campaign,” he said. “Those museums are very, very important and the zoo speaks for itself.”