A Good Idea Needs Time To Ripen

COMMENT

March 20, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

Del. John Gary, R-Millersville, summed up the problem with the proposal for a $25 million Annapolis area conference center as well as anyone. It's a good idea, he said, but it probably came in a year too early.

By the end of last week, hopes of getting plans for the conference center off the ground this year were looking pretty weak.

Almost dead, in fact.

State lawmakers were already getting squeamish from constituent callers, who view the project as a taxpayer-funded gift to the hotel and restaurant industry, when Annapolis Mayor Al Hopkins withdrew his request for the city's share of $500,000 to study the project.

City Administrator Michael Mallinoff said the mayor still supports the project, but it seems obvious that a lack of City Council support has prompted him to take a step back.

Mayor Hopkins' hesitancy, in turn, probably has doomed his and County Executive Robert R. Neall's request for $1 million from the state for design money.

Late last week, the executive was said to be on the verge of withdrawing the bond bills that would provide those funds. Without a firm commitment by the mayor, a set location for the center, the support of the city and county councils, more information about profitability and more aggressive lobbying by the private sector this project will not fly this election year.

Conference center supporters should not find that too discouraging. They have only been working on this project since last summer, and, as recent efforts to secure funding to expand the Baltimore Convention Center illustrate, such things take time.

But the main reason for optimism is that most elected leaders -- including those who say they don't have enough facts to support conference center now -- believe that the concept of such a facility in Annapolis is sound and worth pursuing.

Indeed, members of the local Senate delegation did their best to give proponents a chance to resolve their doubts about the details before they opposed the bond bill outright. Last week, they delayed a delegation vote on the bond bill in the hope that more information was forthcoming; this week, they postponed a hearing before the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"The ducks aren't in order" this year, said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park. "But I predict eventually it will be funded and will become an important boost to the economies of the city and the county."

Sen. John A. Cade, R-Severna Park, for all his blustering about the proponents' lack of preparedness, has talked only of postponing the project until the details are hammered out, not of destroying the whole idea.

The fact is, Annapolis is a city that would attract convention-goers and association meetings. The waterfront and historic charm are guaranteed lures.

Questions about profitability form the heart of the opponents' argument, but one does not need a stack of studies to conclude that a conference center built within a reasonable distance of the historic district (and the Menke site at Taylor Avenue and West Street qualifies as a reasonable distance) will do all right.

Besides, Annapolis needs an economic boost. A successful conference center is not just a gift to the hotel and restaurant business. It would create jobs, increase the tax base and make for a healthy, thriving city.

That may not matter to city residents whose economic well-being is not tied to Annapolis, but it certainly matters to the people who work in or supply establishments related to the hospitality industry.

The benefits are not confined merely to Annapolis, either. A conference center can yield regional or even statewide economic benefits, a fact supporters would do well to remember to tout when this issue comes before the General Assembly again.

It's instructive that state lawmakers opened their ears to pleas for Baltimore's convention center expansion last year when proponents stopped simply describing revenue projections and started talking about how many tons of Eastern Shore chickens downtown hotels would need to feed conventioneers.

Yes, substantive questions still demand answers. There are legitimate concerns about traffic at the Menke site, the better of the two locations being considered.

How much the conference center can be expected to revive West Street remains debatable. Perhaps the conference center is the impetus to get the area moving toward recovery, but one has to wonder who much time conventioneers will be spending shopping or eating along the West Street corridor.

Convention-goers don't travel all the way to Annapolis to visit West Street. The center probably won't revitalize that area unless the city also redevelops it as a resident-oriented commercial center.

And, of course, there is the question of funding. Convention center supporters have a whole year to address these issues. This project lives or dies depending on how well they do that.

An Annapolis conference center makes sense. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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