Convention Center expansion threatened

April 10, 1991|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The legislature's decision to fund less than half the amount requested to plan an expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center jeopardizes the future of the entire project, according to the leader of the expansion effort.

And Maryland's chief economic development officer complained yesterday that a 10 percent cut from his department's operating budget threatens the state's efforts to grow out of the current recession. Every state agency suffered cuts of some magnitude this year as state officials struggled to cut a $500 million budget shortfall.

But "particularly in a time of unemployment, when Marylanders are struggling to find jobs, we cannot stand still," said J. Randall Evans, secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development (DEED). "We must be working to create jobs and strengthen our economy."

Mr. Evans praised lawmakers' decisions to fund design and planning work for a handful of high-technology capital projects, including:

* The Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration, a $200 million marine biology and archaeology center planned to open in 1993 at Piers 5 and 6 in the Inner Harbor area. Gov. William Donald Schaefer requested $1.8 million for design work; lawmakers allocated $1.5 million.

* The Medical Biotechnology Center, one of six facilities that make up the Maryland Biotechnology Institute, part of the University of Maryland.

The General Assembly granted $1 million to design a renovation of the old Hutzler's building on Lombard Street in Baltimore to locate the center.

* A "bioprocessing facility," likely to be located at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Research Campus, that will provide incubator space for small biotechnology companies. Governor Schaefer asked for $2 million; the House and Senate agreed to a $1.5 million appropriation on Monday night, as the legislative session drew to a close.

Still to be decided is a $1 million request to design a Maryland Information Technologies Center, likely to be located in Silver Spring. A committee of legislative leaders will take that up later this year.

"I'm just delighted," said Rita Colwell, director of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute, which sought the funds for the two biotechnology projects.

"It's clear that they can see the need for the state of Maryland to be in the forefront of the biotechnology revolution," Ms. Colwell said.

But Robert Hillman, chairman of the Baltimore Convention Center Authority, said the General Assembly's decision to allocate only $850,000 of the $2 million his group had requested could bring to a halt the plans to roughly double the size of the facility.

"I think it leaves us in a very, very difficult position," he said of the grant, which is contingent on the authority's ability to raise another $850,000 elsewhere, with no more than half coming from Baltimore.

"I asked both [budget] committees all along not to make us go out and raise money from the private sector, because I don't think we can do that," Mr. Hillman said.

What's worse, he added, no more than half the appropriation can be spent until the authority devises a financing plan for the entire expansion project. But Mr. Hillman said he can't come up with a financing plan until he has a firm figure on the cost of the project -- estimated at $150 million -- and he can't pin that down until he spends the full $2 million on a design study.

"It's a classic Catch-22," he said.

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