Baltimore can't wait any longer to expand its Convention Center, says Bob Hillman. Can he convince state legislators, who are in a budget-cutting mood?

NO NONSENSE

March 04, 1991|By Maria Mallory

For two hours of a House appropriations subcommittee hearing Feb. 13, Robert S. Hillman is undeniably the polished chairman of the Baltimore Convention Center Authority. He's stepped into the hearing spotlight to justify a $100,000 operating budget -- small change. He anticipates little friction.

The legislators have a different agenda. With a swift shift in emphasis, they put his entire project -- a projected $150 million-dollar Convention Center expansion -- on trial.

Mr. Hillman smoothly takes the defensive.

Every "Yes, Mr. Chairman," and "No, Madame delegate" politely punctuates Mr. Hillman's responses as he deftly fields the delegates' apprehensive queries, deflects their negative responses and respectfully defends the authority's recommendation that Charm City's Convention Center is in need of expansion ASAP -- as soon as possible. And, yes, the state assumes all risk.

When he's finished and out of the hot seat, a waste-no-words Hillman corners legislative budget analyst Richard S. Madaleno Jr. outside the hearing room. Only half-joking, he demands, "What were you trying to do, shove it up my a--?"

Meet the two Bob Hillmans.

This isn't a case of split or dueling personalities. Actually, both sides of Mr. Hillman are crucial to the matter at hand.

As Gov. William Donald Schaefer's personal choice to head up a group planning the Convention Center expansion, Mr. Hillman, a Harvard-educated attorney, certainly must rely on his savvy negotiating skills. But that alone won't cut it. Mr. Hillman must also lend to the authority his brash, no-nonsense style of attacking an issue.

Having sized up the situation, his authority aggressively backed up its conclusions. After all, money talks -- a $150 million dialogue may not be exactly what the legislature is ready to hear, especially in these days of recession and budget deficits.

The Baltimore Convention Center should, in fact, be doubled in size, the authority asserted in its report to the General Assembly in December. Festival Hall, a modular addition built six years ago as a temporary expansion, should be taken apart and replaced with a new wing of the center, the authority said.

By expanding, the Convention Center would, once again, be large enough to attract most conventions, the authority said.

That increase to 305,000 square feet of exhibition space, 87,000 square feet of meeting room and 40,000 square feet of special event rooms would make the center more competitive with cities such as Philadelphia, Charlotte, N.C., and Pittsburgh, all of which are building mega-meeting halls.

Even with 11 successful years to its credit, the Baltimore Convention Center has begun to fall behind its peers, the authority contends. When it first opened, the center's 115,000 square feet in exhibition space and 40,000 square feet in meeting rooms were sufficient for the needs of 85 percent of the associations, trade groups and other users of convention facilities. That ratio has slumped to 60 percent, the authority says.

The Convention Center doesn't offer enough room for exhibits, according to the Optical Society of America and the INDA-Association of the Non-Woven Fabrics Industry. Both groups, which have held conventions in Baltimore and liked the city, have scratched the city off their list for future meetings.

Another warning sign: Projected attendance already has begun to slump. Convention reservations, which are made years in advance, indicate that attendance could fall from 255,650 in 1992 to 191,000 in 1993.

To get the expansion project under way, the authority is requesting $2 million from the state for the initial engineering and architectural design. The start-up cash will pay for approximately one-third of the total design work, the authority says, and will help pin down the final price tag of the entire expansion.

Mr. Hillman is no newcomer to the convention business. Nearly ** two decades ago, he headed up the campaign that resulted in the birth of the Convention Center. Then, too, he took over the post at the request of then-Mayor Schaefer after completing a stint as labor commissioner for the city.

Mr. Hillman also is no stranger to the tourism and entertainment business. He organized the first City Fairs in the early '70s and in 1976, "Operation Sail," the festival honoring the historic tall ships.

Yet, these days, Mr. Hillman and his six-man authority may look more like masters of bad timing. With the General Assembly aggressively slicing expenses to offset a $500 million deficit for fiscal 1991 and a $115 million shortfall for the following year in the state budget and a regional epidemic of economic malaise, the authority has the audacity to suggest the state commit to what would be one of the Maryland's largest capital projects ever.

"I am opposed to it," Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, who chairs the Capital Budget Committee. "It is taking $2 million of general funds at a time when we are trying to balance a budget that is coming up short of revenues."

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