It's conventional wisdom

Frank A. DeFilippo

February 18, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

PSSST! In case anyone bothers to ask, Baltimore's Convention Center is a silent industry that generates millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across the state.

Though the center itself produces nearly $11 million a year in direct state taxes, the greatest benefits are the spin-offs to related businesses such as downtown hotels and restaurants and the vendors who supply them.

Yet the xenophobes who oppose expansion of the 14-year-old center insist it's strictly a city project with no relationship to the rest of Maryland.

However, a random survey of seven downtown Baltimore hotels showed that they purchased goods and services from nearly 300 different businesses in 11 counties. Some of those counties are the centers of political resistance to center expansion.

One Baltimore hotel alone bought more than 30 tons of chicken from a single Eastern Shore processor. And because of convention business, the same hotel purchased more than $1 million worth of food from three vendors in Howard County. The same hotel's orders included paper supplies from Savage, beverages from Glen Burnie and cleaning materials from Salisbury.

By far the largest supplier of goods and services to downtown hotels is Baltimore County, where at least 170 companies rely on the city's hospitality industry for a large share of their business.

Next is Howard County, where 31 vendors do as much as $5 million worth of business a year in convention-related business with the city's hotels. The largest of these is Smelkinson-Sysco, a wholesale food supplier, which does more than $2 million a year in business with city hotels. The seafood market at Jessup and its companion, the wholesale food market, are huge suppliers to city hotels. Together they employ 700 people.

There are 16 businesses in Anne Arundel County, 15 in Montgomery and 14 in Prince George's that supply goods and services to city hotels. Other businesses are located as far away from the city as Wicomico, Charles, Frederick, Queen Anne's and Carroll counties -- all having some stake in Baltimore's convention center business.

For example, the Hyatt Hotel spent $1.5 million with out-of-city vendors last year, including $414,000 for linen service with a Prince George's County firm, $284,000 for audio-visual services with a Montgomery County company and $228,000 with Smelkinson-Sysco in Howard County.

Similarly, the Stouffer Hotel spent nearly $2.4 million with county vendors, including $1.5 million for food in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, $27,000 for services with a firm in Charles County and $40,000 with a firm whose main plant is in Wicomico County.

Other big spenders with out-of-town suppliers were the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore ($800,000), the Marriott ($1.1 million) and the Sheraton ($500,000). And, finally, the Omni and Harbor Court hotels each had 20 suppliers of goods and services from outside the city. One business in Anne Arundel has 160 employees and does $8 million worth of business a year with Baltimore's major convention hotels.

So it's easy to see that convention business is big business. So big, in fact, that it's outgrown Baltimore's cramped Convention Center. Those free-spending conventioneers are going elsewhere to drink their booze and do their carousing because conventions have grown so big and fast that Baltimore's hall can accommodate fewer than 60 percent of the gatherings.

A poop sheet put out by the ministers of influence downtown says that while Baltimore is the nation's 13th largest convention market, the Convention Center is only the 50th largest facility. And it's shrinking by comparison as other competing cities on the convention circuit -- notably Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, Boston and Charlotte -- are building bigger and better gathering halls.

To drum up business, Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to spend $150 million to enlarge the center, probably the last big-ticket item the city would get from Mr. Schaefer before he leaves office (unless Baltimore wins an NFL franchise and thus a new football stadium).

The deal on the table has the state putting up $100 million and the city $50 million, though where the city will get its share is anybody's guess. To preserve the integrity of the state's spending affordability cap, Mr. Schaefer's pie-slicers are proposing funding the state's share by floating transportation bonds, another example of creative financing, his nomenclators say.

But money's not really the issue. Politics is. The good burghers from Montgomery and Prince George's still have their shorts in a knot because Mr. Schaefer took away the state's Social Security contributions for teachers and librarians. So the Convention Center expansion proposal will likely be held hostage to who knows what kind of a snake-eyed deal.

Yet it's easy for even the brain-dead to see that the economic impact of the Convention Center reaches far beyond the city line, even into rural counties. And it's estimated that the expansion will create nearly 7,000 new jobs and generate $103 million of additional income.

So to all of those benighted outlanders who don't want a bigger and better Convention Center, puh-lease stay out of the new ballpark that you didn't want either.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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