Convention Center in Trouble

March 25, 1991

Unless the Baltimore Convention Center is dramatically enlarged, it stands little chance of gaining new business, or repeat business, later in this decade. Yet the Maryland General Assembly refuses to accept this conclusion, instead lamely asserting that the facility is fine just the way it is.

Perhaps lawmakers ought to spend time talking with officials from groups that once frequented the convention center who now say the facility no longer meets its exhibition space demands. Or perhaps lawmakers should talk to groups that won't even consider Baltimore as a convention site because there's not enough meeting room.

Convention center officials have reams of letters from such groups outlining why they will not bring their lucrative gatherings to Baltimore. Without an enlargement, Baltimore's center will be unable to fill its schedule in the years ahead. Estimates are that the city could start losing $10 million a year in convention business by 1994.

But a $2 million request for design funds for a larger Baltimore Convention Center is in trouble in Annapolis. Legislative analysts claim the center is succeeding already and there is no need to make things better. That may be true for 1991, but analysts failed to consider the outlook for convention business later in the decade.

Already, Baltimore's facility has slipped behind 16 other Eastern sites in exhibition space. That makes it difficult for the center to attract new meetings. It is at a competitive disadvantage.

Doubling the size of the facility, as proposed, would well position Baltimore as the eighth largest convention site in the East.

What's so mystifying about legislative opposition is that the revenue figures from an expanded convention center are so outstanding. The state would gain $21.4 million in taxes from an enlarged facility -- enough cash to pay off the bonds on the project in less than 9 years. Moreover, the economic impact on the Baltimore-Washington region would be stunning: $166 million year in total additional spending by tourists and $52 million a year in additional household earnings.

That's the kind of economic spin-off that should sell itself. Additionally, officials have presented a back-up plan calling for a $1 a night room tax and a $1 a day rental-car tax should state tax revenue from the convention center prove insufficient to pay for the expansion.

If legislators have problems with the financing of this project, there is plenty of time to re-visit the subject. All that is requested now is planning money. Over the summer and fall, lawmakers can decide on the best way to finance this project. But to deny the convention center design money would be foolishly short-sighted. This is one money-maker that already has proved its worth.

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