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Story 06: The Big Move

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Feeding Our Public, Our Bond Holders, Our Ambition

Written by Mike Spock

When we began to sell the idea of the old wool warehouse as the new home for The Children's Museum and the Museum of Transportation to the city, the banks, and other funders, the discussion always turned to how we might increase our chances of survival and prosperity by offering space to retail and food operations. We thought our answer was straightforward and convincing: we would lease space to eating establishments that would serve our visitors and the few folks working and living in the neighborhood, and we would even offer to pay fees in lieu of taxes to the city, with other rentals helping cover the service on the tax exempt bonds, which we would soon be applying for. We had some encouraging discussions with McDonalds at their Oak Park, Illinois, headquarters about opening a company—owned store in our property. If McDonalds found our plans for the Congress Street Wharf (which we first called our newly acquired wool warehouse) convincing and the prospects for the revival of the Fort Point Channel promising, it seemed also to offer reassurance to the banks, other funders, and the city. After all, McDonalds was famous as the shrewdest site—picker in the country! Conforming to McDonalds reputation for driving extraordinarily hard bargains, we were not to get much rent from the lease until they had generated an unrealistically high percentage of sales.

We had also had reassuring conversations in Oak Park about using other—than—plastic furnishings, and even the menu, before the deal was signed. We discussed turning the kitchen, storage areas, and walk—in refrigerators into exhibits. Kids could see where food came from, and how it was grown and processed. But when they turned the project over to their real estate people, lawyers, designer, contractors, and the store operator, they couldn't be bothered. They didn't even acknowledge that those discussions had been held. The opportunity to try something new and exciting was lost. But, we had too many things that were pressing against us to spend much time getting all the players to live up to their agreements.

However, the staff was dismayed. Jonathan Hyde, head of public relations from the lead up to the move downtown and after and who wasn't your standard marketer by any means, remembers in his interview:

I remember a big issue around McDonald's. Some very, very strong opinions. The pragmatists said, "this is popular with kids" vs. the people who were horrified at the prospect. I'm not aware of how that decision finally got made. But the pragmatists won.

...Museum Wharf was a so—called mixed—use development. It was going to [have] two museums and we needed to have as much energy—noise, activity, pedestrian stuff—as we could possibly generate. That wasn't as easy to achieve as we'd all imagined. The museum generated that kind of traffic between nine and five, but after that, the whole place kind of shut down. We were the only game in town. There just wasn't much pedestrian traffic down there at the time. I had a larger game to play. It wasn't just one museum, it was two museums and restaurants. It was a development that was more than the sum of the parts...

But McDonalds wasn't the most disappointing or frustrating commercial collaboration. Our real estate broker found a new chain of Mexican restaurants that was interested in a couple of the wharf's additional first floor bays. It sounded like a good match. But it turned out their logo depicted about the most egregious stereotype of a peasant dozing under an enormous sombrero! So we said goodbye to them.

Things became even more problematic when the Mexican restaurant was replaced by a fish restaurant to be called Trawlers. The proposed owner/operators, who had small successes with eateries in both Albany and on Martha's Vineyard, now wanted to try their luck on the Boston waterfront. To convince us they meant business, they chartered a converted World War II passenger plane, and flying just above the south shore cranberry bogs, brought some of us to Edgartown for a meal at their second restaurant. Their plan was appealing except they had no funding for fitting—out the place. They needed an investor for the kitchen equipment and the front—of—the—store furnishings. Without additional funding it was not a go. And by then, the banks that were about to sell our bonds had talked themselves into the idea that the only thing that would complete this mixed—use development was, of all things, yet another restaurant! (We already had McDonalds and the giant Hood milk bottle.) Dan Prigmore, who was by then completing the Museum Wharf investment package, went among members of both museum boards asking some of them to join him in investing $10,000 each to help get Trawlers open. But, as if they had never operated a restaurant before, when Trawlers opened, the food arrived late and was indifferent. Besides, nobody came! They quickly closed.

So both sets of trustees that had been strong—armed into stepping up to put the restaurant financing in place (in turn to make the banks and bond holders feel comfortable taking risks on Wharf construction and long—term financing) had to eat their investment instead of what was on the Trawler's menu.

A succession of seafood places on barges and boats came and went over the next few years, and depending on the tides, blocked our views, or not, of the harbor. Without exception, they were not in the least memorable. But our earliest arrival at Museum Wharf, the Giant Milk Bottle, remained an unqualified lunchtime success!

Next: Changing Tables & Family Restrooms