ANNAPOLIS -- Every other year since 1983, more than 8,000 optical and laser scientists have trooped into Baltimore to use its Convention Center, and every other year until 2001 the trade association plans to come back.
But unless the General Assembly agrees to fund the center's expansion, said Barbara Hicks, a planner for the group, Baltimore can say goodbyeto the convention delegates and their dollars after the turn of the century.
"If the center is not expanded, I'm going to have to go to another town. We have no other choice," Ms. Hicks told members of a Senate subcommittee yesterday. The panel met to examine a $2 million capital budget request to study the proposed convention center expansion project.
"Our committee has been waiting for an answer on the expansion," she said.
A preliminary response may come as early as Monday, when the Budget and Taxation Committee's subcommittee on capital spending likely will decide whether to allocate the $2 million this year.
The construction to double the size of the facility is expected to cost about $150 million and would be funded with revenue bonds, just as the original structure was.
"All of the projections we have show that the increased activity from doubling the size of the building will more than pay for the debt service," said Robert Hillman, a Baltimore attorney who chairs the Convention Center Authority, which is recommending the expansion.
He said the taxes from the original project now bring the state $11 million a year more than the annual cost of the bonds.
But the state's fiscal crunch has left the lawmakers wary of launching any new projects, even a $2 million study.
"Our department's position is that once you begin [with the design study] it becomes very hard to say no" to the full project, said Ann Marie Zalewski, a principal analyst with the Department of Fiscal Planning.
Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, noting his committee's long experience with saying no, countered that "the decision to spend the $2 million does not commit us to spend one more bent farthing."
Richard S. Madaleno, a fiscal analyst, warned that if the projections about the increase in visitors were too optimistic, the state would be stuck with revenue bond losses.
And Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, who chairs the subcommittee, pointed to some of the other big-ticket projects the business community is requesting this year, including funds for the Christopher Columbus marine research center, an information technology facility, and a biotechnology center in Baltimore.