Damn the experts Hotel decision: City development agency and mayor disregard advice, play politics.

March 04, 1997

THE BEHAVIOR of the Baltimore Development Corp. and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in their site selection for a publicly subsidized new hotel is puzzling.

It is not surprising for politics to influence a site selection by the mayor. That's business as usual. But the Baltimore Development Corp. loses face and credibility when it first hires real estate consultants to do a two-volume hotel study and then ignores the group's recommendation that the best site is next to the recently expanded Convention Center.

Legg Mason Realty Group Inc., the consultant firm, was not alone in that advice. Ever since he came here to head Baltimore's convention effort a year ago, Carroll R. Armstrong has been saying that a "headquarters" hotel of some 1,200 rooms next to the Convention Center is needed to maximize the benefits of its recent, state-funded $151 million expansion.

When the first stage of the Convention Center was built, there was talk about erecting an adjoining hotel and merchandising complex. Those plans never materialized. But the Legg Mason study concluded that a hotel next to the Convention Center would have the best chance of boosting the facility's lagging bookings.

BDC rejected this recommendation. Instead of seeking developers specifically for the Convention Center site, it asked for proposals for a new hotel anywhere in the downtown area. None of the three proposals it received was for the Convention Center site.

And even though the Legg Mason study had emphasized that a new hotel should be "within walking distance," the BDC board and the mayor threw their support to the farthest site -- a mile away from the Convention Center. The mayor's reason: that lot, owned by John Paterakis, a generous donor to Democratic causes, lies within an empowerment zone and is sure to win kudos from the Clinton White House.

The Schmoke administration's decision shocked planners. The Society of Nuclear Medicine canceled a convention, which was to be held in Baltimore in the year 2000. Instead it will go to St. Louis, where 7,000 members are expected to spend $8 million.

Belatedly, the mayor may have realized he bumbled. There have been attempts to get Mr. Paterakis together with Westin Hotels, which wants to develop the former News American site. But Legg Mason said even that lot is too far from the Convention Center.

A misplaced hotel endangers the future of the Convention Center. The Paterakis site is not yet a done deal. When this project comes to the Board of Estimates, it should be rejected.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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