Making the Convention Center Pay

November 25, 1994

So many of America's aging cities are in trouble that when a promising idea surfaces, everyone wants to copy it. This is the case with convention centers. They are sprouting throughout the country. But an article in the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly argues that many of them may never even recoup their construction costs.

Where does that leave Baltimore? Maryland taxpayers are spending $150 million to double the size of the city's Convention Center. What if they built it and no one comes?

This was a possibility raised in a thought-provoking article last month by The Sun's Kim Clark. She quoted local tourism officials as warning that the extra investment may not pay off without additional funds to promote it.

This is a problem distinct from the one mentioned by The Atlantic.

The magazine's main theme was that too many cities were staking their entire downtown strategy on convention business, though they had no tourist attractions to sustain it. This would not seem to be true in Baltimore. Not only does the Inner Harbor have crowd draws, but with the Columbus Center and the children's museum complex it will have a steadily growing number of them.

University of Wisconsin urbanologist Marc V. Levine, a keen student of Baltimore City, calls this syndrome the need "to feed the beast again." In his view, a city that concentrates on tourism will never maximize the benefits because it has to spend too much money to make sure that out-of-state tourists return again and again by sponsoring new attractions.

If one believes -- as we do -- that Baltimore has all the necessary wherewithall for dynamic tourism growth, the surest way to lose the momentum is not to spread the word about the city when the expanded Convention Center is about to open.

Because a number of private and non-profit establishments -- ranging from hotels, restaurants, the Orioles and Harborplace merchants -- are the direct beneficiaries of future tourism business, such promotion should be shouldered primarily by them. But Baltimore City and the state of Maryland have to be partners. This opportunity should not be squandered because the governor or the mayor didn't want to come up with the money.

We urge the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association to take the lead in getting various interest groups together to develop a viable promotion plan.

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