Group seeks seed money for conference center

February 09, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

A group that wants to use public funds to build a $25 million conference center in Annapolis is expected to ask state lawmakers for a down payment, even though a site has not been chosen.

About $1.5 million would pay for real estate appraisals and traffic and environmental studies to evaluate two sites and to begin architectural design, said Jules Smith, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau.

Hotel, restaurant and other tourist industries are counting on the conference center to draw visitors to the city. The center would ++ generate $23 million in new business revenue and $2 million in new tax revenue by 2001, a consultant reported last year.

The visitors bureau selection committee had said it would choose a site by Feb. 1. But members were unable to decide between a location within the city limits and one on the edge of the city near the Annapolis Mall.

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins has been lobbying the committee to choose an 8-acre site within the city at Taylor Avenue and West Street and has even promised to waive certain development fees.

City leaders say a conference center there would lead to the revitalization of inner West Street and, linked to the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, would create a major cultural center. A 1985 planning document set aside the city site, known as the Menke site after the primary land owner Fred Menke, for $H large-scale residential and commercial development.

The other site, on the south side of Jennifer Road and owned by Anne Arundel Medical Center, has received much less attention, though it complements a county revitalization plan for the Parole area.

Residents neighboring the Menke site are concerned that in its rush to build a convention center, the city failed to give adequate consideration to the Jennifer Road site and other locations. And they have criticized the visitors bureau for giving residents little input into whether the city needs a conference center and how it would be financed.

Several residents wonder whether the project should be publicly financed or whether businesses should foot the bill.

Tom Davies, a downtown resident, questions whether the visitors bureau, whose mission is to bring more tourists into town, should have so much control over the project.

"They are essentially a lobbyist for the lodging industry," Mr. Davies said. "Should they be the ones evaluating whether it's feasible?"

The public perception that the Menke site is preferred is understandable, Mr. Smith said. But, he added, "It's not our mission to revitalize any one area. It's our mission to pick the best conference center site" to generate new business.

Visitors bureau officials are pushing to have a conference center built within a few years. But leaders of the local House and Senate delegations to the General Assembly said Thursday that not having a site may pose serious problems.

Del. Victor A. Sulin, a Severn Democrat, said the visitors bureau must submit its financial request by Feb. 25. "If they are not honed in on one site by then, it's going to be very, very difficult," said Mr. Sulin.

His Senate counterpart, Philip C. Jimeno, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, agreed. Without a site, Mr. Jimeno said, "it's premature" to ask for money.

It would be an especially hard sell because the county already is asking for $4 million for school construction, Mr. Jimeno said. If it came down to a choice between the two, "as far as I'm concerned, we've made our decision."

However, County Executive Robert R. Neall, who may request the money on behalf of the visitors bureau, said the state money is within reach this year.

A former state lawmaker with a reputation as a budget expert, Mr. Neall said the conference center would not conflict with the county's bid for school money. He said it would draw from a fund earmarked for economic development projects.

Mr. Neall also disputed the need for a single site to win state financing. He said the money could be approved with its use made conditional upon site selection.

"It's been done in the past," he said.

Meanwhile, the visitors bureau can use county and city money to finance the studies needed to narrow the sites.

Mr. Neall sent a preliminary budget request of $250,000 for the conference center to the county Planning Advisory Board Wednesday.

A subcommittee of the visitors bureau, a nonprofit group partly financed through a hotel tax, has begun negotiating with the owners of the two sites, Mr. Smith said.

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