Tourism a city priority Schmoke lead needed: Raising hotel room tax wrong way to go.

April 06, 1996

BECAUSE THEY DON'T trust Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to take the right course, state legislative leaders are trying to solve Baltimore's tourism promotion problems for him. They are pushing a plan to place a cap on Baltimore's hotel room tax and specify how much of that revenue must be spent on tourism promotion and marketing of the expanded Convention Center.

If the mayor allows the city's business to be dictated from Annapolis, he has only himself to blame for not showing the leadership needed to forge a deal among the city, Inner Harbor hotel operators and restaurant owners that would provide more money to promote the enlarged Baltimore Convention Center.

Future bookings for that facility are well below projections. That is in part due to Baltimore's limitations as a convention city; for example, it lacks a hotel with more than 800 rooms. But a major reason has been the meager marketing budget for conventions set aside by the mayor. Baltimore hasn't been able to compete with other well-funded cities trying to draw tourists and conventions.

Mr. Schmoke seems willing to allow a provision of the city's room tax law to kick in that would automatically raise the tax rate to 9.9 percent from 7 percent. That would make Baltimore's hotel tax the highest on the East Coast, a sure way to chase away business. Even with the extra money thus provided, the work of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association would be jeopardized.

It seems more important to the mayor that some of the room tax revenue go into the city's strapped general fund. He has given downtown hotels time to devise an alternative. But the fact that he isn't leading that discussion, proposing options himself or demanding that restaurants also be involved makes his intentions suspect. He gives the appearance of wanting the room tax increased and the onus placed on hotels to reduce their lodging rates to remain competitive.

The Gencom group says it purchased the Omni Hotel recently in the hope that this 3 percent room tax hike wouldn't be imposed. This should have sent a strong signal to the mayor. Tourism means $1 billion a year to Baltimore. It is important enough for him to find more money in his own budget to pay for and market the enlarged Convention Center without placing an onerous burden on local hotels. Yes, tourist hotels and restaurants should do more to promote the city to which they owe their livelihood, but it is up to the mayor to take the initiative to create a public-private partnership that works.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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