City's Lost Convention Business

July 12, 1992

Is the General Assembly fiddling while Baltimore burns? That disturbing possibility has crossed the minds of some city officials after hearing bad news from the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association: The city's convention business could be off $60 million next year, and without help from Annapolis on building a much bigger meeting hall, Baltimore could see even worse revenue drops in the future.

The simple fact is that Baltimore has been overtaken as a convention venue by such cities as Philadelphia; Charlotte, N.C.; Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta, which are expanding or have recently enlarged their meeting sites to accommodate bigger conferences. Baltimore no longer has the meeting space to host larger and more lucrative conventions. It is fast losing market share.

This sorry situation has been predicted for several years, and all that time legislators in Annapolis have resisted endorsing a plan to double the size of the convention center. They reluctantly agreed to spend money to design and plan the addition, but haven't committed a dime to actually build this extra space.

Now this lost time is coming back to haunt the city and the state. Only 14 big conventions are set for Baltimore next year, compared with nearly twice that number in each of the past two years. That translates into millions of unspent dollars that won't flow into the local economy and millions in state tax dollars that won't be collected.

To counteract this trend, city convention and hotel officials are frantically wooing smaller conventions and corporate meetings as a way to offset these losses. That's a stopgap solution, though. The long-range answer lies in doubling the size of the 115,000-square-foot convention center on Pratt Street. Such a move would also virtually guarantee construction of an elaborate Medical Mart and another high-rise convention hotel. It would return Baltimore to the upper ranks of the convention business.

Legislators ought to be alarmed at this steep drop in convention revenues. It is an early-warning signal for them. They ought to work with convention officials, and with the nearby stadium authority, to come up with a sensible financing plan that would permit construction of a bigger meeting hall to get under way next year. Baltimore and Maryland cannot afford the loss of $60 million in convention dollars. The time for fiddling while other cities grab our convention business is over.

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