Profits from the Convention Center

March 08, 1993

Evidence mounts that failure to expand the Baltimore Convention Center will cost the state dearly in lost tax revenue, but that an enlarged facility is a real financial winner for the citizens of Maryland.

At a recent legislative hearing on the $150 million plan to double the size of the Baltimore center, the legislature's own fiscal analyst said there "is potential for significant 'profit' in terms of revenue." The analyst also pointed out that failure to expand could lead to a sharp drop in state revenue from conventions and trade shows.

This report is welcome recognition that a larger convention center is imperative. Since the original building opened in 1979, it has churned out a constant flow of cash for state coffers. But now, intense competition from other East Coast cities is hurting Baltimore's bids for future meetings. Unless our convention center is expanded, it won't be able to compete with new structures in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C.

But with larger accommodations, Baltimore would be able to host two meetings simultaneously, attract bigger conventions and spur spin-off developments, such as a 1,000-bed convention hotel and a novel medical trade mart.

This is one proposal that makes good economic sense, as the legislature's analyst recognized. State money for this venture will come from increased tax revenue generated by the bigger convention center. Management of the project by the Maryland Stadium Authority assures close attention to the bottom line. And the city has agreed to fund $50 million of the cost -- a huge local commitment.

A few dissenters, mainly from Montgomery County, oppose this project. They want the state to put the money into schools and environmental programs. But that ignores a key fiscal detail: these are revenue bonds, backed by tax money generated by the extra convention business. There is no pot of $100 million sitting there for someone to use for a worthy social cause. The convention center's own viability as a producer of taxes is what makes this proposal economically viable.

If Maryland stands still in the convention business, it will lose millions in future state revenue. A slump in conventions harms hotels and restaurants throughout the Baltimore region. This project has to proceed quickly.

We urge legislators to put their stamp of approval on these expansion plans. Conventions and trade shows have become important to the economic well-being of this region. Enhancing our attraction as a convention site is vital. And since the state is likely to wind up with a fat profit in the bargain, lawmakers may have before them the perfect win-win situation.

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