Convention Center: Grow or Die

April 04, 1993

Despite strong support this week in the House of Delegates for doubling the size of the Baltimore Convention Center, doubts remain among some senators about the wisdom of this $150 million project. With just over a week to go before adjournment, legislators should place passage of this bill at the top of their priority list.

It would be foolish for senators to turn down this proposal. Why? For one thing, it won't cost the state anything. All of the state's $100 million contribution will be paid out of the added tax revenue generated by the expanded convention business -- plus another $12 million a year in profits.

That's a conservative estimate. An enlarged convention center also is likely to spur a new building boom, including a 1,000-bed convention hotel and a first-in-the-nation medical trade mart.

The big beneficiaries will not be the inner harbor hotels -- they're already flush with business -- but struggling hotels nearby and hotels in the suburbs, such as those in northern Anne Arundel County and Harford County.

An enlarged convention center will guarantee an immediate pickup of six large events for 1996-1997 with 50,000 conventioneers. And a bigger facility means state officials can target bigger conventions, which increases the economic spin-off. One consultant estimates a larger convention center would mean a 70 percent gain in events and an 80 percent increase in attendance.

But what if the Senate defeats this proposal? The Convention Center could quickly turn into a white elephant, costing the state millions in lost revenue each year. Other competitors, such as Philadelphia, Washington and Charlotte, N.C., have much bigger facilities. The present center can only bid on 60 percent of the nation's convention business; all the others are too big for Baltimore to handle. That's a recipe for disaster.

Look at recent cancellations. The number of bookings is dropping precipitously, from 49 this year to only 27 in three years. Why aren't conventions coming? The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (10,000 delegates) says Baltimore has insufficient meeting space; Amway Corp. (7,000 delegates) says the center is too small; the Distributive Education Clubs of America (12,000 delegates) says there's not enough seating; the International Association of Chiefs of Police (6,500 delegates) says it needs a firm expansion commitment; the American Society of Hematology (5,500 delegates) and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons (3,000 delegates) say they have outgrown our center, and the National Association of Realtors (5,000 delegates) says the same thing.

The message is clear: grow or die. Expanding the convention center is absolutely essential. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller should use all his persuasive powers to convince wavering senators that this proposal is a solid winner for the citizens of Maryland. Failure to endorse this project could prove a costly mistake for state taxpayers.

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