An expanded Baltimore Convention Center will bring $440 million of economic activity into Maryland each year. Why then did five state senators move to block the release of $425,000 in planning money for the project?
The Convention Center and the spending it generates are a $200 million-plus business which this year will contribute $19 million sorely-needed dollars to the state's tax receipts, as well as $7.2 million to the city in hotel taxes alone.
Last year, 220,000 delegates to conventions and trade shows at the Baltimore Convention Center spent an average of $1,000 each. The convention industry provides 6,700 jobs -- from hotel manager to butcher to printer to audiovisual specialist -- in an area that desperately needs employment.
Studies commissioned by the state's Baltimore Convention Center Authority show that expansion of the center would more than double the current economic activity and would generate enough tax dollars from non-Marylanders to pay for the new building. A conservative estimate shows that over the life of the 20-year bonds needed for the expansion, the state's cumulative profit will be $230 million above the cost of the facility. And 5,500 new jobs will be created.
Despite the obvious economic promise of the expansion, five members of the Senate Committee on Budget and Taxation have blocked the project. At the same time, in Philadelphia, more than 1,000 masons, carpenters, electricians and plumbers were hard at work on a new convention center three times as big as Baltimore's. They had been put to work by Pennsylvania legislators who know a good thing when they see it.
Meanwhile, Baltimore's director of the Convention and Visitors Association received a letter informing him that a $10 million convention booked for 1993 was moving to Philadelphia because it has outgrown the Pratt Street building.
The Convention Center, as it now stands, has been a startling success. It has generated enough tax dollars to pay off its 15-year bonds in 11 years and still give the state a hefty $70 million tax profit over the life of the bonds.
But it is fast becoming obsolete. Future bookings are in jeopardy. Every week brings calls and letters from convention planners declining to bring meetings to Baltimore because the building is too small. When the center opened in 1979, it could accommodate 85 percent of the conventions that meet in convention centers. Because conventions and trade shows had an unprecedented growth spurt in the 1980s, that figure shrank to less than 60 percent. The proposed expansion would restore Baltimore's ability to compete for 85 percent of the market.
The wisdom of moving ahead with the planning for an expanded center was evident to the House Appropriations Committee which voted to release the planning funds. Baltimore city and private contributors have pledged to supply half the needed money. All the metropolitan county executives favor expansion.
But the Senate committee, despite the good will and leadership of its chairman, Sen. Laurence A. Levitan, is unable to see a good investment in a growth industry. A combination of parochialism and short-sightedness have everything on hold. Unfortunately, one of the leaders voting against expansion was Bolton Hill's own Sen. Julian A. Lapides, who is the only Baltimore legislator in either the House or Senate opposing a project which is good for the entire State, but of special importance to the city.
Maryland cannot afford to let obstructionists kill the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. Senator Levitan should call for reconsideration of the release of the planning money and let the full committee vote on it.
Robert S. Hillman is chairman of the Baltimore Convention Center Authority.