Up from political oblivion

Bruce L. Bortz

January 28, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

LEGISLATIVE agendas change with the weather. So do legislative prospects. A highly visible case in point is the proposed expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center.

Less than a month before the 1993 legislative session, Gov. William Donald Schaefer was unsure how strenuously to push the project, which has been one of his pets.

Resistance came from everywhere. The Montgomery County delegation, still stinging from past rebukes, was erecting a "Don't Even Think About It" sign. The project's $168 million price tag raised conservative eyebrows. And then there was the governor's "who'll do what first?" tiff with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke over how much the city was willing to kick in.

With the last of these obstacles largely removed, what had been a long shot suddenly got the full Schaeferian treatment. But to succeed, the governor will have to put to rest several questions and doubts about the proposal.

First, House Speaker Clay Mitchell thinks expansion makes economic sense, but he wonders if the complex could be turned over to private interests, which would finance the needed expansion.

No, say expansion proponents, that's economically untenable. No major city convention center is privately owned, and for good reason: The centers are "loss leaders," in business to create economic activity for hotels, motels, shops, restaurants and other tourist attractions. A private developer could make a go of an expanded convention center only by getting a share of the sales and other taxes generated by its activity.

Few governments, no matter how entrepreneurial, are willing to go that far.

Another obstacle is skepticism over the claim of center operators that they'll continue to lose convention business if expansion doesn't occur soon. While the recession may have held down attendance at a handful of association meetings, conventions have grown in popularity.

Exhibitors, convinced that trade shows are an effective way to market, are willing to pay hefty fees that subsidize conventions. But they need a lot of space to operate. Baltimore just doesn't have it.

Opponents raise another question: Along with the city's new domed football stadium, why not build in extra convention and meeting space, much as New Orleans did with the Superdome and Houston with the Astrodome? The short answer is that neither of these big-name domes has really worked for conventions; both are lightly booked for meetings. (Both are too far from their cities' cultural and tourist centers.) Moreover, Baltimore is not likely to start work on another stadium until it gets a National Football League franchise. That could take months -- or years.

On one thing most agree: The project is likely to pay for itself. Latest studies show that the $168 million expansion would generate enough additional tax revenue to retire the construction bonds and leave a couple of million dollars on the table. Here, the convention center proponents have some credibility. They got the original project through a dozen years ago, and the center has performed even better than originally projected.

What happens now depends, of course, on politics. Signing on the team from Montgomery is clearly a priority. It might help if some of the construction revenue found its way to suburban Washington. Some of it did in the building of Oriole Park at Camden Yards; the two primary contractors were based in Bethesda.

In the beginning, the governor wanted a statewide convention center authority to help improve convention halls not just in Baltimore, but in Ocean City, Hagerstown, Cumberland and Montgomery County as well. The governor still likes the idea, and there have been meetings on the Ocean City and Hagerstown centers. If that idea reaches fruition, a few votes for the Baltimore expansion might be gathered in the hinterlands.

Two weeks ago, most observers wouldn't have made a $1 keno wager that conventions could be showing up, come April 1997, in an expanded Baltimore Convention Center.

Now the odds have improved considerably.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of Maryland Report newsletter and political analyst for Channel 45. Every other Thursday, he writes here on Maryland politics.

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