The Great Hotel Debate of 1997 is wonderful because until now I never realized it was a six-week trudge through blinding snowstorms for tourists to walk from the east side of the harbor to the Baltimore Convention Center, and what a terrible thing if they spend a few bucks as they walk through Harborplace on their way or, heaven forbid, make a wrong turn out of the hotel and discover the joys of Little Italy or Fells Point.
Political payoff, everybody in town is now declaring in overheated chorus. Why else would Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke give the nod to John Paterakis Sr. and his property east of the harbor, if not as payback for money the east Baltimore baker has delivered for the mayor?
Why else, if not to pave the way for gambling at the waterfront hotel, which both Paterakis and Schmoke want for the city?
"Well," Paterakis was saying yesterday, sitting in his East Baltimore H&S Bakery office and pointing at an artist's rendering of his proposed hotel, "for openers, there ain't gonna be any gambling at this hotel. If this was made into a casino, I'll tell you what, we'd give back whatever millions the city gives us to build it. I'd put it into an agreement with the city. This hotel has nothing to do with gambling."
He pointed to each level in the hotel drawing and elaborated: first floor, stores and a restaurant; second floor, the lobby and three restaurants; third through fifth floors, parking; sixth floor, 140,000 square feet of meeting rooms and two ballrooms.
Which, of course, is the area at which everyone points. There, they say, those ballrooms and meeting rooms. That's where they'll put the slot machines, or the casinos, or both.
"Oh, yeah?" says Paterakis. "Then where do I put the meeting rooms and the ballroom? You can't have a hotel like this and not have those. And another thing: You ever see slot machines on a sixth floor? You have gambling, you want people to see it when they walk into the building, not six floors up. And the rest of the hotel" -- 32 floors, which are considerably narrower than the bottom six floors -- "is strictly bedrooms."
Does Paterakis want gambling? Absolutely. But his waterfront property, east of Harborplace and south of Little Italy, is huge. If gambling ever gets approval, he says he'd build a separate facility for it, one with no connections to the current hotel deal.
Which brings us to the next rumor: The mayor's selection of Paterakis' site is payback for previous financial help. Has Paterakis helped bankroll previous Schmoke political campaigns?
"Absolutely," he says. "He's my mayor, and everything I own is in the city, so naturally I'm backing whoever is the mayor."
Which leaves another question: Hasn't Peter G. Angelos, the Orioles owner who wants to build a hotel next to the convention center but seems momentarily rebuffed, also sent money to the mayor?
"Of course," says Paterakis. "Probably more than me."
As such things are difficult to measure precisely -- who knows which individuals lean on which other individuals to contribute to various campaigns? -- let's just say each man has been generous, and each has the mayor's gratitude.
And not just the mayor's, either. For Angelos and Paterakis, each wealthy beyond counting, this isn't strictly about money, or even ego. They're old-line city guys who have stayed here through depressing times. Their emotions are here. There's money to be RTC made, but they also know how vital tourism is to the health of the city and how all those tourists need convenient hotel rooms.
So why would the mayor lean to the Paterakis property, a mile from the convention center, instead of the Angelos deal?
"He told me," Paterakis says, "that distance isn't an issue. I think he wants them to walk through the harbor area and spend a little money. And if they don't want to walk to the convention center on a good day, they can take buses.
"And guess what? You look at the Sheraton, the Hyatt and the Renaissance. They're around the corner from the convention center, but they've got buses lined up to go there every day for people who don't want to walk. And so will we."
It was then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer who convinced Paterakis to purchase the huge block of land on which he now wants a hotel.
"Oh, yeah," Paterakis says. "I told Schaefer, 'You stuck me with this damned land, say something about this hotel situation.' But he won't. He's afraid if he says something, the mayor will automatically take the other side."
To which Schaefer, reached yesterday, declared:
"Oh, I don't want to get into it. I don't want to take sides. But this fighting has to stop. I know how these things work. People looking for convention sites call various cities, and they'll say, 'Well, we're looking at Baltimore,' and the other cities will say, 'Baltimore? Look at these negative clippings. They can't even get a hotel for you.' "
For the moment, the city's finally picked one. And it ain't exactly a six-week trudge from there to the convention center.
Pub Date: 7/10/97