The Inner Harbor’s revival is starting to come to fruition as the curtain lifts on the biggest changes at the Light Street Pavilion since it opened three decades ago.
Several new restaurants and attractions will open in the pavilion this summer, and some, like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Johnny Rockets, already have. The changes bring the space back to 2007 occupancy levels.
“The property has had, in recent years, a transition, and there was nothing really quite new going on and the occupancy had dropped for a variety of reasons — the economy and just the climate of retail in general,” said Christopher S. Schardt, senior general manager of Harborplace and The Gallery. “But we’re now seeing the revival and the renaissance of Harborplace and virtually both buildings are full.”
A Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium and the McCormick World of Flavors, the world’s first McCormick and Co. Inc. retail space, will also open at the Inner Harbor this summer. The pavilion’s expanded food court and J. Paul’s restaurant will reopen after renovations.
In addition to the changes at the Light Street Pavilion, BRIO Tuscan Grille opened earlier this year at the corner of Light and Pratt streets. The Four Seasons Hotel opened in Harbor East at the end of last year.
Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism agency, put it into perspective with a football field analogy. With Harbor East serving as one end zone and the city’s two stadiums serving as the other, the Inner Harbor is the city’s 50-yard line.
“And we’ve just totally upgraded our 50-yard line,” he said.
Bubba Gump, a San Clemente, Calif.-based seafood chain, inspired by the hit film “Forrest Gump,” opened on Tuesday, with the official ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday.
With its lacquered oak tables and blue and red booths, the restaurant can seat 473, including about 140 outdoor seats, said General Manager Jon Frost. Baltimore is Bubba Gump’s only Maryland location.
Frost, who has spent 12 years with the company, said he was eager for the opportunity to come to Baltimore. He was the general manager of the Orlando, Fla., restaurant for the last six years.
“They announced that Baltimore was the destination about a year and a half ago. …Once I knew it would be OK with my wife and family, I immediately put my hand up,” he said. “I grew up in Richmond, Va., I’ve always found this town to be a great place to spend your time.”
The 14,000-plus-square-foot space includes two bars, a retail area, an outdoor patio and a “Gump on the Run” quick-service area. Several crab-based recipes designed exclusively for Baltimore are on the menu, and Baltimore is the first restaurant to have a “Gump on the Run.”
The restaurant will employ a little more than 300 hourly staff and a 13- to 15-person management team, Frost said. So far, the restaurant has filled just fewer than 250 staff spots and has a management team of 13 in place.
Bubba Gump replaces Phillips Seafood Restaurant, a Harborplace original tenant that left in September and reopened in November across the Baltimore harbor in the Power Plant building, in the space formerly occupied by the ESPN Zone.
“We want to be a long-term favorite in the area,” Frost said. “We want to really build a strong bond in Baltimore City with the locals.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, joined by Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce President Charles R. Owens, executives from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and a Forrest Gump impersonator, welcomed the restaurant to Baltimore at Thursday’s ceremony.
“I have never in all of my years seen a more enthusiastic staff than you have here at Bubba Gump,” she said. “The women in the gift shop were so excited, they scared me.”
The real thrills, however, had happened the day before.
Hundreds gathered Wednesday evening to watch daredevil Nik Wallenda walk 300 feet across the Inner Harbor to a 100-foot tall crane mounted to a barge.
Dressed in a black and lime green shirt and wearing leather moccasins made by his mother, Wallenda marked the upcoming opening of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium.
Wallenda, 33, began walking on wires at the age of 2. Wednesday’s stunt was also a tribute to his great grandfather, Karl Wallenda, who traversed the Inner Harbor in 1973.
“To do something similar is an honor, it’s extremely exciting,” Nik Wallenda said.
Opening at the Inner Harbor is a two-decade long dream come true for Ripley’s.
“We’ve been looking for about 20 years at the Inner Harbor to try to find the right situation for ourselves,” said Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment Inc. “We’ve always loved it here.”
The Inner Harbor attraction opens June 1 and will include a salute to Baltimore sideshow star Johnny Eck, who was born with the appearance of being truncated at the torso. A 10,000-pound Kugel ball — a large granite ball floating on a thin layer of water — covered in facts about Baltimore, will be located in front of Ripley’s.
Ripley’s spent $5.5 million to renovate the approximately 12,500-square-foot space, said Drew Morales, general manager of the Baltimore location. Morales was previously the general manager of Ripley’s in the Dallas area. The museum will employ between 20 and 25 people during the summer tourism season.
The world’s first McCormick World of Flavors, a 3,800-plus-square-foot center that will showcase McCormick and Co. Inc. products as well as hold cooking demonstrations, is slated to open in the pavilion after July 1. A renovated and expanded 7,500-plus square-foot food court and J. Paul’s restaurant will also open this summer. Johnny Rockets returned to the Light Street Pavilion in late April.
“I think having things like Ripley’s or Bubba Gump is a lot better than having empty space,” said Mitch Case, 22, who works in downtown Baltimore and came to the Inner Harbor to watch Wallenda’s performance. “Hopefully they’ll be good attractions and increase tourism.”
Kim Battista, 48, a Baltimore resident who also came to see the performance, said that though Ripley’s and Bubba Gump may be too touristy for her, the McCormick store will be a welcome addition.
“People are being nostalgic about that,” she said, referring to the former factory location of the Sparks-based spice manufacturer. McCormick’s legendary plant and headquarters stood at 414 Light St. from 1920 to 1989, just steps away from the future retail store’s location. The property is now a parking lot.
The changes couldn’t have come at a better time, Harborplace’s Schardt said.
“It’s happening during a summer that should be fantastic for the harbor, with the celebration of the War of 1812,” he said.
The two-year celebration of Maryland’s involvement in the War of 1812 kicks off on June 13, when dozens of tall ships and naval war ships arrive in the harbor for the Star-Spangled Sailabration.
The improvements to the downtown area, coupled with the bicentennial celebration, won’t just be boon for tourism, but for potential future convention and trade show business, Visit Baltimore’s Noonan said.
“It’s not only just the tourists that are in town … we’ve got all of these convention planners going to be in town,” he said.
For the second year in a row, Baltimore will host the annual conference of The Americas Meetings & Events Exhibitions. This year’s meeting starts June 19, the last day of Sailabration. About 2,500 convention planners are expected to attend the event, Noonan said.