Costly Blunder by Schmoke?

April 08, 1993

If Baltimore City loses the $150 million convention center bill in Annapolis, there will be no one to blame but Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. His angry threat to pull the city's $50 million commitment to the expansion now places the entire project in jeopardy. Yet the expansion is too important to Baltimore, and Maryland, to let the mayor's personal pique stand in the way.

Mr. Schmoke's opposition is baffling. He is furious over a Senate amendment that gives the state proportional ownership of the expanded exhibit and meeting facility. That's not an unreasonable request. Yet he feels this is a personal slap at him. So the mayor says he will withdraw the city's $50 million pledge as its one-third share of the cost of doubling the size of the convention center -- unless the offending amendment is withdrawn.

What a tragedy that would be. Enlarging the convention center is absolutely crucial to stimulate the city's lagging downtown economy. It means thousands of temporary construction jobs, hundreds of permanent jobs and millions of dollars for both the city and state treasuries. It also will be the salvation for many of the area's hotels and restaurants now struggling to survive.

Even worse, defeat of the bill would throw the existing convention center into a tailspin. Already, six conventions have pulled out of Baltimore because of lack of space. Unless something is done soon, Baltimore could become a backwater convention town, costing the state and the city millions of dollars in declining tax revenue and jobs.

Mr. Schmoke's peculiar position is inappropriate for someone who says he aspires to higher statewide office. It's similar to the star high school quarterback getting angry over a call by an official, picking up the football and threatening to go home with the ball unless the call is reversed. It is petulant, and it is self-defeating.

The mayor misses the point. Who owns the convention center is irrelevant. In Philadelphia, Atlanta and Denver, state ownership never became an issue because city officials realized the importance of the state's role in building their convention centers. The key is to get the enlarged facility in Baltimore built so it can start generating new income for area hotels, restaurants and businesses that service conventions. That won't happen if Mr. Schmoke takes his $50 million and goes home.

Baltimore cannot afford such a costly blunder. If Mr. Schmoke calms down and sizes up the situation, he'll see this is just a petty battle over political egos. If the Senate, and especially Sen. John A. Cade, wants partial ownership of the enlarged convention center, so be it. That's an insignificant price to pay for the millions more in tax revenue and spending that a bigger convention center would mean for the Baltimore economy.

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