The center of attraction Tourism: A convention center addition opening Friday is expected to bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars a year to the city and state.

September 01, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Before the Hyatt Regency and Harborplace rose along the Inner Harbor, before the first shark swam in the first oversized fish tank at the National Aquarium, before Baltimore became the toast of Time magazine and urban planners everywhere, downtown's rebirth as a destination began in earnest just west of the waterfront.

There, the Baltimore Convention Center, the low-slung, concrete curiosity on Pratt Street, quickly proved to a city what it desperately wanted to believe: Baltimore really could be more than a place out-of-towners passed over, under or through, on the way to somewhere else.

Soon after its 1979 opening, the center surpassed the most optimistic projections by drawing a steady parade of tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors.

Now Baltimore once again looks to the convention center as an engine to propel a second urban renaissance, with Friday's opening of an expansion nearly tripling the center's size. Expectations for the expanded center run high: $340 million a year in convention-related spending, $30 million in annual city and state tax revenues, about 8,000 jobs, other downtown development.

Two decades ago, when work began on the original center, few imagined the tourist trade that would grow up in the downtown blocks surrounding it. Then, Baltimore attracted perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 business and leisure travelers a year, estimates suggest.

Today, tourism represents the city's second-biggest industry (behind health care) and one of the few growth industries. Each year, the city attracts about 7 million visitors who spend $1 billion. They generate $67 million in state and city taxes and 15,000 jobs. They keep cash registers ringing at dozens of restaurants and tourist attractions. They fill rooms in no fewer than a dozen hotels built since 1981 in a downtown that then had three.

A year before the first shop in the glass pavilions of Harborplace framed the first dollar bill behind a cash register, the convention center's opening ushered in the downtown renaissance. In short order, Harborplace, the National Aquarium, the Hyatt Regency, and restaurants and shops sprang up. This in a city that had burned during race riots little more than decade earlier, a city ravaged by the flight of the middle class from its core, a city struggling to overcome a persistent inferiority complex.

Man with a vision

One man, more than anybody, believed in the potential of his city as a place people would want to visit, and making others believe it became one of his passions. William Donald Schaefer -- mayor, cheerleader, civic visionary -- saw a modern convention center as one of the first essential ingredients to get the kind of exposure no advertising could buy.

The overnight "miracle," as Time put it, really took years, beginning in the early 1970s.

Before Schaefer could convince the world "Baltimore's Best," he had to win over others, like his Cabinet at City Hall.

"I remember saying, 'Someday, Baltimore is going to be a tourist destination,' and they would laugh at me, and say, 'Who wants to come here?' " recalled Schaefer, who served 16 years on the City Council, 15 as mayor and eight as governor.

The mayor dispatched his staff with note pads in hand to go forth and find good things -- Fort McHenry, the Preakness, ethnic neighborhoods, historic churches -- and report back. Before they could convince others, he reasoned, they had to convince themselves.

"A lot of people would have looked at the city then and just thrown up their hands and gone home," said Robert S. Hillman, a Baltimore attorney who worked closely with Schaefer and lobbied the General Assembly for the original convention center and the $151 million expansion.

"The city was a wreck," Hillman said. "But Schaefer was like this real force who was able to attract a bunch of people vitally interested in the city."

Turnaround begins

Soon, the annual City Fair was drawing hundreds of thousands to the water's edge. "Sunny Sundays" brought ballplayers and artists and musicians to the basin. So did the tall ships and the party of epic proportions celebrating America's 200th (even though a downpour washed the world's biggest birthday cake into the water -- on national TV).

By the late 1970s, years after the steamships departed, leaving behind seedy bars and rotting wharves, it became hip to head downtown again. A struggling city learned to celebrate itself. Investors and developers suddenly took interest in the part of town many had written off as lost for good.

But would outsiders find the newly christened "Charm City" as charming?

The convention center would provide the first real measure of the city's ability to recapture some of its past. Baltimore, after all, had been known as a premier site for national political conventions through the early 1900s (when it boasted three thriving hotels with more than 2,000 rooms each, among many others).

Rapid success

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