Conventions already lining up for unbuilt facility

January 09, 1995|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

The hole has been dug. The foundation walls are in. The caissons that will hold up the buildings have been planted. Everything is on schedule for the $150 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center to be complete by September 1996.

The project already has started to pay off -- with advance convention bookings and hotel reservations into the 21st century. And city officials have begun to address one lingering sore spot -- a lack of money to promote the center.

But not everyone is happy.

Some downtown hotel managers still worry that the expansion's impact will be limited by a lack of promotion. "The convention center won't open with success just because it looks good," said Stan Zabawsky, director of marketing for the Mariott Inner Harbor Hotel.

Construction began last year with the digging of a huge hole off West Pratt Street -- 700 feet long, 350 feet wide and 25 feet deep. Once the foundation work is complete, the next crucial step is erecting the structural steel next month.

"We've been moving pretty much as scheduled," said Kim I. McCalla, deputy project manager of the expansion for the Maryland Stadium Authority. "We keep praying for good weather."

The expansion includes construction of 185,000 square feet of new exhibit space, 45,000 square feet of meeting room space and 37,000 square feet of ballroom space. And once the old buildings are renovated by April 1997, the new facility will have a total of 300,000 square feet of exhibition space and 50 meeting rooms.

That will make Baltimore's convention center a mid-size facility, about the same size as Washington's.

"We used to be mid-size when we first opened 15 years ago, but everything else got larger," Ms. McCalla said.

New convention centers are under construction or have recently opened in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and San Antonio. Renovations and expansions were recently made to centers in Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Chicago.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association says 23 conventions bringing a total of 130,800 people to Baltimore have been booked in advance because of the convention center expansion.

But competition from other cities makes it important for Baltimore to keep spreading the word about its enlarged facility, the association says.

The association is a private, nonprofit agency, but most of the $3 million it has spent since 1989 to promote the convention center has come from the city, with local businesses kicking in the rest. The expansion is being funded with $100 million in state money and $50 million from the city.

Warner Kunz, managing director of the Harbor Court hotel, said that hotel isn't considered a convention hotel, but he was looking forward to the convention center expansion. "Selling out with citywide conventions adds cream to the pudding for everyone."

Gail Gerber, director of sales for the Lord Baltimore, said the impact on that hotel might not be as great as for those closer to the Inner Harbor. But she said news of the expansion had helped the hotel make bookings as far in advance as 2004.

Leonard Sachs, chairman of the Mayor's Committee for Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had asked that consortium of the city's major entertainment attractions and retailers to help find funds to promote the center. The 35-member committee includes the Orioles and the Columbus Center.

"We've got a job to do and we're going to do it," said Mr. Sachs, who is also chairman of Maryland Office Interiors. "We're trying to develop a long-range funding plan."

Gary Oster, general manager of the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, said the convention and visitors association had done an outstanding job with advance bookings under the circumstances.

He said the downtown hotels' marketing departments were also touting the expanded convention center to fill their rooms.

But Mr. Zabawsky and Mr. Oster said the city should have given the association more money for promotional programs.

"It's very disturbing that the city and state would make a $150 million investment and not promote it more," Mr. Oster said. "When you have a new and exciting project such as this, you need to increase promotion, not keep it at the same place."

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