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War of 1812 bicentennial celebration kicking off

Gift Shop at the new visitor center at Fort McHenry.

Gift Shop at the new visitor center at Fort McHenry.

The official opening of Fort McHenry’s new visitor center, expected March 3, will be the kickoff of events and fundraising for celebrating the War of 1812 bicentennial.

The 32-month-long celebration of Maryland’s involvement in the War of 1812 is expected to cost the state $25 million. Some $8.5 million of that is expected to come from the sale of commemorative $5 gold coins and silver dollars, which will be sold next year at $35 and $10, respectively.

Half of the $25 million will go to nonprofits and organizations around the state doing events and programs on the War of 1812. Then $10 million will be invested directly by the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission into programs and three signature events: an official week-long kickoff celebration in June 2012; an event in spring 2013 to mark the partnership of the U.S., Canada and Great Britain; and a September 2014 re-enactment of the September 1814 battle at Fort McHenry.

To raise the money, the commission, appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, will start a campaign this spring to ask for corporate and foundation contributions. The commission’s goal is to raise $16.5 million, said Bill Pencek, director of heritage and cultural tourism for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

The commission created a nonprofit, called Star Spangled 200, to assist in the fundraising. Not only will the commission ask for donations from local businesses and foundations, but it will also look for national sponsors.

“It’s a tough time out there for all of us as individuals, certainly for governments right now,” Pencek said. “But the corporate community in Maryland has been generous.”

The economic impact to both Baltimore and the state will outweigh the cost of the celebration, Pencek said. For the June 2012 kickoff, Pencek said the commission created a model based on Baltimore’s OpSail event in 2000. The week-long event will bring at least 1.5 million visitors to the Inner Harbor and more than $100 million in direct spending in the city, Pencek said. That spending includes transportation, food, lodging and other entertainment and shopping.

In creating a plan for events and organizing the bicentennial celebration, the commission also looked at the model Virginia created for its commemoration in 2007 of the 400th year of the founding of Jamestown.

The improvements to Fort McHenry are the beginning of the commission’s steps.

The $15 million visitor center was paid for with federal, state and local money, as well as some park entrance fees. The center is built outside the historic fort and has closer access to the city’s water taxis.

Gay Vietzke, park superintendent, said the center will house new exhibits, a gift shop and a film that will explain the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The information desk, gift shop, restrooms and offices in the new center are open now.

The fort will also expand its exhibits by 2014, including a new electronic map showing the path of the war, and updates to the flag room and guard house. Vietzke said she expects attendance to jump from its current 650,000 visitors a year to more than 700,000 during the bicentennial.

“I expect a little bubble during that time,” she said. “That’s why we need to upgrade the facilities and exhibits, to provide an experience to everyone who wants to come here.”

Fort McHenry officials were turning down about a third of the tour requests they received before the new visitor center because the old center couldn’t accommodate more people, Pencek said.

The new center was created with leftover brick that was made 15 years ago to repair the fort’s fencing.