Debate on center heats up

January 06, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

The debate over a proposed conference center in Annapolis heated up again last night as both sides argued whether the city should spend more money studying a possible site on West Street.

Testifying before the City Council, residents, business people and community leaders alternately labeled the request a boost for a struggling urban corridor and a selfish grab by an affluent hotel industry.

The City Council is expected to vote Monday on whether to approve a $140,000 grant request for a new study of the West Street-Taylor Avenue intersection, the potential site for a conference center favored by many local hospitality businesses.

The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau is lobbying for the funding.

Last night, there was testimony praised and condemning the proposed study and the conference center itself.

Marcia Harris, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said a conference center would create jobs. "Every job will add to the coffers of this city," she said. "I've tried to think of the kind of businesses that could not benefit . . . and the only one I could think of is a mortuary."

Some residents said the hotel industry should pay for the study and that the conference center idea already is costing local taxpayers too much money.

"I think we all need to go back to Negotiating Class 101," said Annapolis dweller Peter Smith. "If this project is so strong, how come [hotel owners] are not here tonight with a $140,000 check?"

Last year, the visitors bureau requested $140,000 for an environmental and traffic impact study of the Taylor Avenue-West Street neighborhood. That area is "underutilized, deteriorated and vacant," Mary Burkholder, the economic development director, told the council last night.

Some residents called the study redundant.

The county, city and visitors bureau recently paid $30,000 for a feasibility study for the project.

The hotel industry also is considering another site for a conference center on Jennifer Road, on land owned by the Anne Arundel Medical Center, but is pushing the West Street location, known as the Menke site, which is closer to downtown Annapolis,

The matter was put to rest temporarily last spring when the City Council withdrew a proposal to spend bond money on another study. Critics of the project argued then that it would cost too much and never pay for itself. Shortly after that setback, the conference center group withdrew its request for state funding.

But Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins recently helped revive the conference center proposal when he met with business leaders and encouraged the group to lobby for more money.

Many people who live near the abandoned 11-acre lot on West Street -- the site that would be studied -- say that if a conference center is built there, it could give a struggling inner-city area a second chance.

"We ask the city to please fund the study," said community activist Bertina Nick. "We want to be on the inside. . . . We want to have a say on what's done there."

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