Shortcut to embarrassment

July 29, 1994

In recent times, the Schmoke administration has increasingly come to believe that circumventing such processes as open bidding will save time and enable government to produce results faster. Perhaps this outcome indeed can be obtained with thorough screening and research. Unfortunately, the Schmoke administration is not known for adept or disciplined staff work.

The latest embarrassment -- coming after disclosures about questionable non-bid awards by the municipal public housing authority -- concerns the city's efforts to find a new manager to run the financially troubled Harrison's Pier 5 hotel at the Inner Harbor. By cutting short the conventional selection process, the city ended up with an operator who had been convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder and two handgun charges in Prince George's County!

A bit of background: Harrison's hotel, a 71-room inn, was built by private investors during the mayoralty of William Donald Schaefer. Although its restaurants have proven popular and profitable, the hotel has been a costly mistake. It is simply too small to compete in a tough marketplace -- and it is too far from most existing Inner Harbor attractions. When its operators failed, the city took over Harrison's in December, reasoning that the facility could be sold gainfully when the new $160 million Columbus Center opens next door.

Although city officials deny that any plans exist for razing the troubled hotel, that remains an option.

In the meantime, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development wants to turn the hotel into a pilot program where its "social compact" of higher wages and benefits would be practiced.

Hoping to keep all of the long-term options open, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke scuttled the conventional selection process and gave the hotel's interim management contract to Terry T. Brown, a Fells Point businessman. The deal -- which would have involved bringing in an experienced manager along with such institutional partners as the Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities -- fell through after Mr. Brown's criminal past was discovered.

The city is now back to square one. This time it plans to go through an orderly and formal contract process, entertaining a full range of proposals from management contractors as well as from those wanting an option to purchase the property.

This is how the Harrison's deal should have been handled from the very beginning. Shortcutting proven processes is an open invitation for trouble and embarrassment.

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