City revamps search for a new Harrison's manager

July 28, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Joel Obermayer and Eric Siegel contributed to this report.

Embarrassed after picking a convicted hit man to manage Harrison's Pier 5 hotel, Baltimore officials have totally revamped their selection strategy because the first search appears to have been flawed from the start.

Political pressures and a campaign by a church-based social action group shaped the initial recruitment of a new manager for the financially troubled Inner Harbor hotel, according to interviews with elected officials, business leaders and members of the Schmoke administration.

The city briefly advertised the two-year management contract this spring and gave bidders 2 1/2 weeks to respond. Few hotel chains or experienced managers submitted proposals because they usually need more time to develop plans.

Some downtown hoteliers and national industry consultants called the first search, which drew only six proposals, "highly unusual."

"That doesn't sound very professional," said Joseph Kordsmeier, a hotel operations consultant in Carmel, Calif. "Most hotel chains would want to study the market, and usually the RFPs [request for proposals] give you at least 60 days."

"We made a mistake," said Michael V. Seipp, vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

The limited search led the BDC to select a partnership headed by Terry T. Brown, a shopkeeper, real-estate agent and recent president of the Fells Point Business Association.

Officials ended talks with Mr. Brown last week after learning that he had been convicted in 1983 and spent time in prison for wounding the husband of a Greenbelt woman in a murder-for-hire plot.

The tumultuous turn of events drew criticism from City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and other council leaders. Yesterday, Mrs. Clarke said the BDC had published a bid proposal "that made no sense."

"I think we got ourselves lost in quasi-government 101," she said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was out of town yesterday. However, administration officials dismissed her criticism as politically motivated. She has announced her intentions to challenge Mr. Schmoke next year.

This time, BDC officials have sought the advice of a consultant to develop a bid package, Mr. Seipp said. The BDC plans to advertise widely and appoint a panel of representatives of the hotel industry, the legal community and the BDC to review proposals.

Baltimore took over the 71-room waterfront hotel in December at a cost of $5.25 million. But the city does not want to sell Harrison's until after the Columbus Center opens on the same pier in 1995.

The more than 200 employees of Harrison's have been guaranteed their jobs while the city reopens the bids, the administration said.

From the beginning, the first search for a manager went beyond a strict business deal.

By the time the city advertised the contract in late May, Mayor Schmoke and BDC officials had already met with leaders of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. The coalition of church and community groups has campaigned to boost pay of low-wage workers downtown, enhance training and put more blacks in management.

"We felt here was an opportunity to demonstrate what can be done in this industry," said Kathleen O'Toole, BUILD's lead organizer. BUILD leaders argue government has a responsibility to pay higher wages downtown because public money rebuilt the waterfront.

BUILD spent the spring lobbying the Schmoke administration to hire Eddie L. Isom, who runs the Howard University Hotel in Washington. Mr. Isom pledged to turn the hotel around with an African-American management team and pay wages about 10 percent above the going rate for Baltimore hotel workers.

The group suggested that the city not seek other bids, Mr. Seipp said. But Mr. Brown's group already had turned in an unsolicited proposal.

Mr. Brown aggressively pursued the contract, lining up a partner with hotel experience, negotiating with Johns Hopkins Hospital and promising to offer training programs with Morgan State University.

The result was that the deal became infused with social implications. "For better or for worse, we made a decision that we wanted more than just a strict business arrangement," Mr. Seipp said.

Only four other groups submitted proposals after the city ran two small ads in the legal notices sections of the Afro-American and The Sun.

BDC officials narrowed down the list to three: Mr. Isom, the Brown team and Pier 5 Inc., which has managed the hotel for the past five months. Pier 5, led by Richard and Sondra Harrison McGee, offered the most lucrative deal by guaranteeing $500,000 a year in profits.

In late June, Mayor Schmoke told a meeting of low-paid service workers that he supported BUILD's goal and wanted to use Harrison's as an example. He mentioned that the search had come down to two contenders, one of them Mr. Isom.

Now, as the city begins a new search, Mr. Isom says he is reluctant to submit a new proposal. And BUILD organizers are upset that their goals were misconstrued as influencing a business deal.

"This was the mayor's choice," Ms. O'Toole said. "It's ludicrous to blame BUILD or anyone else if the choice is now embarrassing to him. To allude to the fact that BUILD in fact put the pressure on to cause this decision is more than laughable, given how it turned out."

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