Lost convention business

January 07, 1993

Now that Gov. William Donald Schaefer has made a conciliatory gesture, it is time for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to reciprocate by lining up solidly behind a proposal to double the size of the Baltimore Convention Center. Otherwise, the city could lose millions of dollars each year in desperately needed tax revenue as conventioneers take their business elsewhere. Expanding the facility has become an economic necessity.

In the past three years, 33 groups have opted not to come to Baltimore because there's: 1) inadequate exhibit space; 2) not enough meeting space; 3) insufficient space for holding general sessions; 4) no ballroom, and 5) no large headquarters hotel. These problems will only worsen in the years ahead as more and more trade groups find Baltimore's facilities too small to handle their growing needs. The number of events staged at the center could drop in six years by 80 percent.

That's an alarming situation. A decline of that magnitude would mean a loss of millions of dollars in city tax revenues -- and jobs. It would do irreparable harm to downtown hotels and restaurants now struggling to get by.

In contrast, doubling the size of the Baltimore Convention Center would bring over $14 million a year into city coffers (plus $26 million a year into state coffers). Annual attendance would grow by over 80 percent and construction of a 1,000-bed convention hotel would be virtually assured.

All that would spell plenty of new jobs for the city as well as a much-needed economic stimulus to the downtown area. Yet Mayor Schmoke has been curiously ambivalent regarding the convention center expansion. He seems to feel the matter can be put off a year or two.

That's a dangerous misreading of the situation. This year could represent the city's best and only chance to win state support for expanding the convention center. Two years from now, a new legislature could be openly hostile to such a massive city project and the next governor might not consider it a priority. And 1994 is a wash-out because state legislators up for re-election won't stick their necks out to help the city.

So it is now or never for Mr. Schmoke and the convention center expansion. The governor has opened the way for negotiation over a financing plan acceptable to the mayor. This is such a critical downtown development project that we wonder why the mayor hesitates.

How would he compensate for the loss of millions of tax dollars if the expansion doesn't happen and Baltimore's convention business dips? At a time when the city is scraping for every conceivable tax dollar, a bigger convention center represents a ray of hope. Mr. Schmoke cannot afford to let this opportunity slip away.

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