Quietly last month, the Schaefer administration won a strong endorsement from the General Assembly to place the operation of the Baltimore Convention Center under the auspices of the Maryland Stadium Authority. It is a move that could prove the salvation of the center.
For several years, it has been clear the convention center's future lies in doubling its exhibition and meeting space to nearly 1 million square feet. Bigger conferences are by-passing Baltimore and many other conventions have now outgrown the city's meeting facilities. Meanwhile, cities in this region have put up expansive convention venues. Baltimore's market share is dwindling.
Given the economic spin-offs from the convention center, the state cannot stand by while other cities reap the rewards. A larger convention center is also crucial to the plans by a private developer to erect a giant medical trade mart that could include a 1,000-room hotel and up to 2.5 million square feet of space for medical groups and suppliers.
Convention Center officials have had little success in wooing legislators. That's why the stadium authority was asked to step in. It makes sense to have one agency supervise plans for the entire Camden Station area. The medical mart, for instance, would be built to the south of the station on stadium authority land but its hotel would be on top of or across from the convention center.
The stadium authority has a solid track record. It directed a $200 million demolition and construction project that has brought raves to the city and state for Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the recycled B&O warehouse. Most important to legislators, the authority delivered the project on time and near the budgeted price.
Authority director Bruce Hoffman is assisting architects in developing designs and models for the convention center expansion, including cost estimates and a financing package. Paying for this $100-million-plus undertaking could be tricky: Revenue bonds, backed by the tax money generated by the expanded convention space, seems the best route. But a fall-back plan, probably involving a regional surcharge on hotel rooms, must also be included -- over the protests of the hoteliers. Even more difficult could be persuading the legislature to back a plan that would soak up so much of the state's bond money next year.
Yet this is a key development project. An expanded convention center is the next logical step to make the Camden Station area a booming generator of jobs and state tax revenues. We think the stadium authority is well suited to the task of preparing a sensible expansion plan that will meet legislators' demands, and then selling it to them.