Have a hall, will travel

August 17, 1993

It is good that the Schmoke administration is trying to figure out what to do with Festival Hall now that an expansion of the Convention Center will make that eight-year-old structure redundant. But before officials begin seriously thinking about moving that hall anywhere, they ought to establish whether it is movable.

It so happens that the Maryland Stadium Authority has looked into that possibility.

Its conclusion was "it didn't appear that it was a building that could be easily movable," according to Bruce Hoffman, the authority's executive director. "Our study showed you could move it for about the same cost that you could buy a new building."

This conclusion contradicts the official line eight years ago that proclaimed Festival Hall could be easily taken apart, moved elsewhere or sold to another user.

If the stadium authority is right, then the question confronting the Schmoke administration is not where to move Festival Hall but whether a facility serving a somewhat similar purpose ought to be built somewhere else (and pretty much from scratch). To determine the correct answer to that question requires some unsentimental and realistic economic analysis. You simply can't build a hall these days and assume that people will come.

Yet the Baltimore Development Corp., an appendage of the Schmoke administration, is studying a new location without having first answered the basic question of whether a new Festival Hall is needed.

Since planners seem willing to put the cart before the horse, it is not surprising that they are studying new locations primarily in the Howard Street corridor, which is not one of the places in the city where many Baltimoreans or visitors will want to congregate, particularly at night.

Howard Street used to be Baltimore's department store hub but fell on hard times when first department stores and then other quality stores either went out of business or fled to the suburbs. It would be nice if its economic and image problems could be solved simply through the construction of a new hall there. That is unlikely to happen.

Both alternatives identified by consultants are problematic. A city-owned parcel next to Lexington Market is topographically difficult and would require expensive foundation work. The other -- and far more promising -- site at Howard and Centre streets lacks adequate parking for the thousands of people that a truly successful event might attract.

Its basic complication, however, is that it is owned not by the city but by the Weinberg Foundation, which is not the easiest negotiator to deal with.

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