After years of squabbles over spending to attract tourists and conventions to the city, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has agreed to a compromise that would put funding for marketing Baltimore on a par with that of competing cities.
The agreement, expected to be introduced as state legislation sometime next week, would funnel 40 percent -- or about $4.6 million for the next fiscal year -- of annual city hotel tax revenues to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association and limit the room tariff to 7.5 percent.
The state also would put up about $700,000 a year. With convention bureau members' fees, the agency's budget would be about $6 million -- more than twice what the agency had to work with before the legislature intervened with a one-year emergency infusion of cash.
Through repeated budget battles and warnings that lax marketing had threatened the health of the newly-expanded Baltimore Convention Center and the city's $1 billion-a-year tourism industry, the mayor had insisted the city couldn't afford to commit a portion of the room tax. The compromise marks the first time Schmoke has agreed to commit a portion of the hotel tax revenues to the convention agency.
Yesterday, Schmoke said he believed the need to ensure that the city remain competitive in the bid for visitors overshadowed concerns about the loss of the revenue.
"We're all optimistic and I look forward to working with lawmakers to enact this important piece of legislation," Schmoke said.
Schmoke's move quickly eased mounting concerns that poor marketing might turn the Convention Center expansion into a $151 million failure.
For years, the non-profit convention and visitors agency's leaders have pleaded for more money. They said they struggled to compete with counterparts in other cities that spent two to three times as much.
Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, credited the mayor with playing a key role in devising the compromise. Bromwell said he planned to sponsor legislation based on the compromise, likely with Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat. Bromwell predicted the measure would win passage in the General Assembly, where lawmakers enacted one-year emergency funding for the convention agency last spring.
"Finally, we'll be able to really market the Convention Center," Bromwell said. "This is a major breakthrough, and it makes us look a lot like the rest of the world in terms of marketing the center."
Like other lawmakers and tourism industry veterans, Bromwell pointed to the huge public investment in the expansion -- $100 million from the state, $51 million from the city -- and said everyone in Maryland has a huge stake in its success.
Baltimore has been one of the few U.S. cities without a dedicated source of funding for its convention bureau. Before the legislature intervened last spring by letting the city use state highway fees and other funds to finance the agency, its budget had been $2.8 million a year, $2 million of it from the city.
Carroll R. Armstrong, president of the convention and visitors association, also welcomed news of the compromise.
"The convention bureau historically has been grossly under-budgeted," he said. "It's reassuring that both the city and the state are taking this seriously now and giving [the convention bureau] the tools it needs in this fiercely competitive marketplace."
The limit on the tax rate also would avert an automatic increase in the city's hotel room rate that would have taken effect if additional room tax revenues generated by the expansion failed to cover the cost of the city's $51 million share of the expansion. "Now we can go up against the big guys," said Christian Mari, general manager of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. "The whole industry was concerned. I'm glad the mayor and all the powers-that-be in the city realize what a big industry this is, and without the support, it would really hurt the city."
Pub Date: 1/10/97