Expansion's OK puts hunt for groups in gear


April 14, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

The Baltimore Convention Bureau wasted no time spreading its good news yesterday, cranking out letters to everyone from the Christian Booksellers Association to the Beer Wholesalers Association of America, proclaiming that the $150 million expansion of the city's Convention Center was on.

Monday, when the General Assembly gave its approval to the project after a four-year struggle, was a day for pouring Dom Perignon Champagne, said Wayne Chappell, the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Bureau's executive director. Yesterday was the beginning of the hunt.

"The groups we're writing to right now are groups that are making decisions for 1997, 1998 and 1999," Mr. Chappell said.

Within days, the Loyal Order of Moose in Mooseheart, Ill., will become one of dozens of organizations to get the word that after 1996, Baltimore's central meeting place will no longer be a 50th-place, 142,676-square-foot bandbox.

Instead of lagging well behind the center in Fort Wayne, Ind., Baltimore's 305,000-square-foot Convention Center will be comfortably in the top 30 -- hobnobbing with the likes of those in Phoenix, Denver and Minneapolis. And while that might not sound overwhelmingly impressive, convention experts said the size was right for Baltimore.

"There's only a handful of the very largest shows that won't fit in there, said Peter Shure, editor in chief of Convene, a professional journal for convention planners.

David DuBois, vice president of marketing for the Professional Convention Management Association in Birmingham, Ala., said the expansion would make the Baltimore center big enough to handle the largest exhibitions staged by 80 percent of the members of his group, which serves large associations. Previously, Baltimore could accommodate about 60 percent, he said.

"Long term, it's going to have a very positive tax-base effect on the city," Mr. DuBois said.

Besides doubling the current exhibit hall, the expansion will increase the center's meeting space, from 23 rooms with 40,000 square feet to more than 40 rooms with 87,000 square feet. That factor can be just as important in luring modern conventions, which tend to have a lot of small sessions and seminars, Mr. Shure said.

The building will include a 40,000-square-foot special-events room where conventions will be able to hold banquets and other social events, Mr. Chappell said.

He said he expects that room to generate considerable revenue from local events as well as conventions.

The expansion will be a particular boon for the ailing downtown hotel industry, which has seen room occupancy rates drop as larger conventions bypassed Baltimore.

Mr. Chappell said the larger center would bring the city's supply of hotel rooms "into balance" with demand. But he added that he would not be surprised if the expansion spurred some hotel construction downtown -- especially on the site of the old McCormick spice factory.

Jim Biggar, general manager of the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, said that although the city has some attractive downtown sites, hotel companies will still approach Baltimore cautiously.

"There are already troubled hotels in the city," Mr. Biggar said.

With the expansion, Baltimore will have a competitive edge in bid

ding against other East Coast cities, Mr. DuBois said.

"The hotel-room costs are less, generally speaking, than New York and Washington and even Orlando."

Another advantage is that Baltimore offers what Mr. Shure called "a tight package" -- about 5,000 hotel rooms within six blocks of the Convention Center.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chappell was still reveling in the hard-won triumph.

"We called Philadelphia yesterday and told them they'd better hold on to their tentatives, because we're coming after them," he said.

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