Making convention business sizzle

October 14, 1994

Is tourism good business for Baltimore?

This is a dispute that rages on among downtown boosters and such critics as University of Wisconsin urbanologist Marc V. Levine, who says most jobs created by conventioneers and other visitors are essentially low-paying hamburger flippers' jobs. His nTC criticism has been embraced by such groups as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and the American Federation State, County and Municipal Employees, which use Dr. Levine's arguments as organizing tools.

Yet let's remember the past, before the Inner Harbor became a tourist magnet in the 1970s. Things were so bad Baltimore had arguably only one presentable hotel. The downtown was dying.

Ever since the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor Baltimore has increasingly come to rely on tourism as an economic development tool. That's why $150 million in taxpayer money is being spent to enlarge the 15-year-old Convention Center along Pratt Street.

The expanded convention facility will not be opened until 1996, but already warnings are being heard that Baltimore's tourism business may be running out of steam. Articles in magazines and newspapers report that so many cities have adopted the convention center as the corner stone of their downtown strategies that there will soon be a glut in this highly competitive market.

The long recession put a damper on convention business, no doubt about it. Nevertheless, the hospitality industry has been one of the biggest growth sectors of the economy in recent years. If the rebound continues, tourism is likely to grow even faster. By having enlarged the Convention Center -- and continuously developing new crowd attractions -- Baltimore ought to be in good position to benefit from that boom.

There is a problem, however. Unless action is taken quickly, the expanded Convention Center may be opened with inadequate promotion. If that happens, then Baltimore may be in danger of losing momentum it has already created in its tourism industry.

We urge that the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association work out a promotion plan that can attract sufficient private and public backing. The state and the city ought to be key players in this, but the broad range of tourism-related institutions -- from museums and the Orioles to hotels and restaurants -- should be in the forefront in providing financial muscle. They, after all, are the main beneficiaries of increased tourism.

Do it, and do it now! Failure to undertake adequate promotion could have consequences too grim to contemplate.

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