Schaefer bid to win passage begins in force Project has been political football

February 24, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer Staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer launched a major offensive yesterday to win legislative approval of the proposed $150 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center, a battle that could last until the final day of the General Assembly session.

At a news conference yesterday in Annapolis, Mr. Schaefer was joined by several dozen backers of the bill, which faces its first hearing tomorrow before the House Appropriations Committee.

The supporters included the governor's economic development director; business leaders; Lynette Young, chief of staff to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; most of the city's legislative delegation; hoteliers; restaurateurs; and others who would benefit from increased convention business.

They were armed with loads of data and a collection of charts to demonstrate the need to triple the size of the downtown facility to 300,000 square feet if it is to keep churning out tax revenue.

And their tactic was to emphasize, again and again, that the center does not benefit only Baltimore, but the entire state.

"Every time there is a major convention in the city of Baltimore, the state wins, not only the city, the state wins," Mr. Schaefer said.

"There are those, I don't really understand it, that are not 100 percent behind us. People in other parts of the state because they don't recognize the importance of conventions in the city of Baltimore to their own economy," he said.

The Convention Center has been a political football for several recent sessions of the General Assembly with legislators from beyond the Baltimore area questioning the need for, and the expense of, expansion.

Once a deal was worked out with Mayor Schmoke for the city to pick up a third of the cost, the governor agreed to push for the bonds necessary to finance the project.

The major obstacle is legislators from Montgomery County, who are still smarting over a budget-balancing deal in November that forced localities to pay Social Security taxes for teachers. The Montgomery lawmakers have threatened to torpedo the Convention Center expansion as a payback.

To get the expansion bill through the legislature, Mr. Schaefer will need support from Prince George's County lawmakers, who now have their own large capital project to protect: an $83 million performing arts center for the University of Maryland in College Park.

This year's capital spending plan contains $2.2 million in seed money for the arts center, which had been proposed unsuccessfully for years. The governor and his staff deny any connection to the Convention Center, but the proposed projects clearly will be linked in the minds of some legislators.

University of Maryland officials in College Park envision the arts center as a first-rate theater complex that would be used both for public and student performances. It would be the only major theater in the Washington suburbs of Maryland.

An arts center would allow the College Park campus to house most or all of its dance, music and theater programs in one building.

Prince George's officials have tentatively agreed to put up roughly $10 million for the project, with the rest of the money coming from University of Maryland revenue bonds.

At yesterday's news conference, Mr. Schaefer denied any connection between the two projects.

"I look at each project separately and decide on its merits. I don't know how to play those games," he said. "Some of my people might do that."

The governor's staff was also busy yesterday, selling the statewide importance of the Baltimore Convention Center.

Mark Wasserman, head of economic development, described Baltimore's convention business as "the cornerstone of the entire hospitality and tourism industry in the state of Maryland." He claimed that in 1990, the Convention Center brought the state $244 million in business and generated $11.4 million in tax revenue.

"Those are taxes paid primarily by people from outside of the state," Mr. Wasserman said.

"I feel pretty good about it," David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief lobbyist, said of the chances of the Convention Center expansion bill in the legislature.

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