Senate OKs expansion of Convention Center

April 09, 1993|By But mayor balks at joint ownershipWilliam F. Zorzi Jr. | But mayor balks at joint ownershipWilliam F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer Staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

The Maryland Senate last night followed the House of Delegates in approving $100 million for expansion of Baltimore's Convention Center, but the deal could be derailed because Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is threatening to withhold the city's portion of the financing.

Last-minute changes in the Convention Center bill made by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Tuesday, which would make the state part owner of the building for at least 99 years, triggered Mr. Schmoke's threat to withhold the city's $50 million contribution.

"The mayor has said that if the legislature adopts the [Senate] language, it would raise very, very serious questions as to the city's commitment," Peter N. Marudas, Mr. Schmoke's legislative liaison, said yesterday. "That would change the dynamics of it, and we'd have to re-examine our position."

Mr. Schmoke was ill and unavailable yesterday for comment.

The committee's version of the bill passed 40-6 last night after the Senate beat back a half-dozen amendments by Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, including one that would have required the state to spend half the $100 million on school construction.

All six votes against the measure were from Montgomery County senators, who are still angry at the city delegation over budget disagreements last year.

The House of Delegates already has passed and sent to the Senate a Convention Center bill that differed in the method of financing and how long the state would be a part owner of the building.

The differences between the measures passed by the two houses are expected to be worked out in the next two days by a conference committee of delegates and senators as the legislature heads for a Monday adjournment.

Concerns about the future of the Convention Center escalated yesterday in light of Mr. Schmoke's objections to the Senate plan.

But city and state officials, as well as business leaders, expressed hope that the mayor's concerns could be worked out by the conference committee.

While city delegates and senators dismissed Mr. Schmoke's threat as political posturing and tried to put the best face on the 11th-hour hitch, state officials said they were considering the threat real.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer was incredulous that the city administration had dug in its heels over a project he says is "essential" to the city and state.

"I just can't believe that anyone in the city administration is threatening to withhold money, because without it, the Convention Center will never make it through the legislature," Mr. Schaefer said yesterday during an interview in Baltimore.

"To hold this up on one little point, you're going to jeopardize the economic viability of the city?" the governor said.

"It's foolish."

This is the second flap to threaten Convention Center expansion.

Earlier this year, the governor blinked during a standoff with Mr. Schmoke by naming the mayor's nominee to the Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversees the Convention Center.

Mr. Schmoke had said that the city would not put up $50 million unless he had representation on the board.

Mr. Schaefer praised the efforts of the business community, legislature and his own staff for bringing the project so close to becoming a reality this year, which he views as a critical time, both economically and politically, for the expansion.

But he said he is now worried about the fate of the expansion.

"You're on the three-yard line; now's not the time to fumble the ball," Mr. Schaefer said.

Mr. Marudas said that Mr. Schmoke backs the House version of the bill.

That version calls for the state to own two-thirds of the expansion -- representative of the state's $100 million share of the cost -- until the 20-year revenue bonds used to finance construction are paid off.

The Senate amendments, which were pushed by Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, would use general obligation bonds issued by the state and paid off over 15 years to finance its share -- a plan that would save the state several million dollars over the revenue bonds.

The Senate version of the bill also would require the state to own a portion of the current building, an earlier expansion and the expansion now under consideration.

The terms would give the state part ownership for 99 years and an option to extend that ownership in perpetuity.

The amount of the state's ownership of the building would be in proportion to the amount it spent for the original building and the subsequent expansions.

Mr. Marudas said the mayor does not object to the House's proposal for the state to be part owner of the building for just the time during which the bonds are being paid off. But he said the mayor does have problems with the Senate's requirement for a permanent stake in the building.

That, he said, makes the state "co-owners and co-tenants," which raises questions about air rights, development rights and say-so over adjacent properties.

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