Tax idea receives mixed reviews Support for financing of city promotion plan varies in tourist area

January 13, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Carole Oliver had made up her mind before the meeting started.

"No new tax. Enough is enough. We have enough taxes," she told leaders of the Greater Baltimore Committee who were proposing a new tax on restaurants to pay for the city's tourism promotion.

Mrs. Oliver and her husband Bill are owners of the Wharf Rat, a restaurant directly across Pratt Street from the new addition to the Convention Center.

"I was strongly opposed to the proposal," she said yesterday of the GBC's plan for a 1 percent tax on tabs on about 135 restaurants in a "tourism district" that would be used to promote and market the city.

"I told them, 'The city already wastes too much money. They plant ivy on Pratt Street every year, and then they don't water it. The ivy dies,' " she said.

But in the time that it takes to order a cheese steak sandwich and fries, Mrs. Oliver had changed her mind and joined the ranks of the supporters.

"They made a very strong argument," she said. "They showed us the promotion budgets of other cities that we are competing with for conventions, and they were much larger than what we were spending. It made sense to me, as a business person, if you spend more money to bring in more conventions, we would benefit."

Donald P. Hutchinson, director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the private business development group has been meeting with restaurant owners for weeks "and with one or two exceptions, there is unanimous support" for the plan.

"Don't get me wrong," he added, "nobody likes the idea of new taxes, but everybody recognizes the need for additional funds to promote downtown Baltimore. It's begrudging support."

Jerry Smith, owner of PJ's Pub on Charles Street near 33rd

Street, still needs to be convinced.

"I'm opposed to it," he said. "There are good taxes and there are bad taxes. This is a bad tax. It's like shooting ourselves in the foot.

"I don't see how this will benefit PJ's. We're three miles from the Inner Harbor and we don't get much tourism business.

"Why did they single out restaurants to pay for the promotions? Why don't they increase the fees on the convention people?"

Jeffery Valentine, a vice president of the GBC, said the tax on restaurants located in Inner Harbor, Convention Center and Camden Yards areas, as well as Little Italy, Fells Point, Federal Hill, Mount Vernon and Charles Village "was the most do-able" solution.

He said one of the many options considered was an increase in the hotel room tax, which is 12 percent. The GBC concluded that this would make hotel costs here "out of whack" with those in other cities and would discourage conventions from coming to Baltimore.

A 1 percent increase in the general retail sales tax also was rejected.

Mr. Valentine said that according to a state study, 37 percent of the sales at downtown restaurants comes from people who have traveled 100 miles or more to visit the city.

"We think it fair that the beneficiaries of the convention business help pay for it," he said.

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