Crippling the Convention Center

September 02, 1991

The vote of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to block a much-needed expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center could be a crippling blow for those interested in economic development of the city's downtown district. Unless this decision is reversed, the state would lose millions of dollars in tax revenues and the city would lose an important generator of jobs and tourist spending.

Denying funds to design an enlarged convention complex makes no sense. The existing facility is no longer big enough to accommodate most national conferences. Doubling that space through a $150 million revenue bond would enable the facility to compete for 85 percent of all conventions.

Those who disparage the convention center project had better check the bottom line. When the state underwrote the $50 million capital investment for the present facility in 1979, naysayers called it a white elephant. They were wrong. In just 11 years, the state had raked in enough tax money from conventions to pay off the 15-year bonds. It has generated a $70 million tax profit for the state treasury.

But the existing structure is obsolete. Other eastern cities are stealing business from Baltimore because its convention complex is now too small to handle large regional and national conferences.

A House Appropriations subcommittee understood the problem and approved design funds for an expanded complex. But the Senate budget panel deadlocked 5-5, with Baltimore's own worst enemy, Sen. Julian Lapides, leading the city-bashing. That's unfortunate, because Baltimore desperately needs new economic incentives. An enlarged convention center would generate 5,500 jobs and a cumulative profit for the state of $230 million.

We urge chairman Laurence Levitan and Sen. Barbara Hoffman of Baltimore to get the committee to reverse its vote. A larger convention center means employment for hundreds of out-of-work construction laborers and permanent jobs later for thousands. It means bigger conventions coming to town, with each conventioneer spending an average of $1,000 while in Baltimore. That creates an economic ripple throughout the region's economy.

This project is a money-maker for Annapolis and Baltimore. Crotchety, perennial city-bashers might rail against it but legislators who understand the convention center's enormous potential should endorse the expansion plan. In this recessionary climate, the last thing lawmakers should do is turn down a sure money-making project.

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