The developer of a proposed $600 million, downtown life-sciences complex has offered to contribute $425,000 to the Baltimore Convention Center expansion -- but lawmakers are split on whether to take the money.
Parkway/Swirnow Group Ltd. has submitted bids to the Maryland Stadium Authority for developing the land east of the ++ new baseball stadium. At the same time, the group issued an unsolicited proposal for additional developments, including a conference center and hotel to be built next to or on top of the convention center.
The group thinks its project -- which would be oriented toward attracting medical conventions and industry to the city -- needs an expanded convention center.
The General Assembly this spring approved a $150 million doubling of the center, contingent on receiving $425,000 each from the city and private businesses.
"We are doing it just to get the ball rolling. We want to see the Convention Center expanded. It's important for what we are doing," said Thomas Marudas, vice president of Parkway/Swirnow.
He said the company is willing to pay the money even though it may fail in its bid to develop the Camden Yards site, which includes several parcels around the baseball stadium now under construction.
Three other groups submitted bids for developments at the site.
Even though the company expects nothing specific in return for the money, Marudas said, "we would like to have support for our concept from people." The company would want its money back if the Convention Center were not expanded, he said.
At a joint meeting yesterday of state Senate and House subcommittees, Robert Hillman, chairman of the Baltimore Convention Center Authority, said the group had experienced difficulty raising the private money required by lawmakers. He urged acceptance of the Parkway/Swirnow offer.
But Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, said he was uncomfortable with the letter Hillman presented from Parkway/Swirnow.
In it, the developer said the $425,000 pledge "is based on our understanding that we will jointly participate with the authority" in the convention center design and for the development of "air rights" above the center.
"I don't think we would be very responsible legislators if we voted to release these funds today," Smelser said.
Hillman said he has made it clear to the developer that the $425,000 gift would not entitle Parkway/Swirnow to any special considerations.
But Smelser delayed indefinitely a vote on releasing the state's portion of the convention center design money, over the objections of Hillman and J. Randall Evans, the state's secretary of employment and economic development.
The House subcommittee, however, voted to release the money with two conditions. Hillman must send a letter to Parkway/Swirnow re-affirming that the state expects no strings to be attached to the extraordinary gift. He also must consult with area governments on some new taxes that have been proposed to pay for the center's expansion, should existing tax revenues fall short.
The Convention Center recommends a $1-per-night tax on hotel room and car rentals in the city, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County. Between them, the taxes are projected as raising $3.7 million a year, although Hillman said he is confident they will not be necessary because increased convention business should generate enough new tax revenues to pay off the center's development bonds.
Parkway/Swirnow has the same top officials as a group that is building the HarborView marina and luxury housing development east of Federal Hill. The group includes Baltimore developer Richard Swirnow and the Singapore-based Parkway Holdings Inc.
Parkway/Swirnow's convention center plans, dubbed "MEDMART," call for an international life sciences center, medical trade mart, conference center and convention headquarters hotel all to be built on parcels around the stadium and convention center.
The complex would focus on the state's growing life science industry, with permanent displays of medical equipment in the trade mart, and special rooms in the conference center designed to attract medically related conventions, Marudas said in an interview.