As the Board of Estimates approved the Wyndham Inner Harbor East Hotel yesterday, an influential business group told the mayor that he has his priorities backward and should instead first develop a hotel next to the expanded Baltimore Convention Center.
The Greater Baltimore Committee, in a letter to the mayor signed by GBC Chairman Frank Bramble, argued that the lack of a closer hotel endangers the $151 million public investment in the expanded center and seriously jeopardizes the city's relationship with the state legislature.
Questioning whether the city could really support two more large hotels, as the mayor maintains, the GBC said in the letter: "The highly public hotel debate has taken on a life of its own. We caution you to guard against an inopportune 'escalation of commitment' to [the Wyndham] when the timing is not right and full strategic benefits to the city cannot be realized.
"From a business perspective, the most effective way to launch the new wave of hospitality and tourism industry growth in Baltimore is to first expedite the development of a convention headquarters hotel."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, responding in a statement last night, said: "My response to the letter was the action we took today at the Board of Estimates."
Donald P. Hutchinson, GBC's president, said the business group based its recommendation on a monthlong study shortly after Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos proposed a $150 million Grand Hyatt that would be built on city-owned land and be linked by an enclosed walkway to the convention center.
Like an ever-growing number of business and legislative leaders, Hutchinson warned of dire consequences for city requests before the General Assembly unless the mayor reconsiders his decision.
"I think when legislators make an investment of $150 million, they expect it to be protected, and that's what they expect here," Hutchinson said. "They feel they've taken the risk, and it's now up to city fathers to make sure that investment is protected, but I think they seriously question the commitment to that."
Because of the mayor's refusal to back off his support for the Wyndham, Hutchinson said: "You'll have this tremendous, tremendous public debate in Annapolis, and you'll have all the focus on the city and questions about its ability to make decisions, and that's a debate we don't need to have now. There's no question that it will raise questions about the city's ability to manage on every debate that involves money."
Hutchinson did say, though, that the Wyndham would be an asset to the city but that "it's just the wrong choice here" ZTC compared with the alternative proposal.
The Board of Estimates' unanimous vote yesterday was the first of several hurdles for the Wyndham development group, which is seeking about $52 million in public subsidies, an amount that has risen during negotiations.
The group, assembled by baking magnate John Paterakis Sr., must gain approval from the City Council this fall and from city voters in a November 1998 referendum. The council, which reconvenes in late September, would have to overhaul the Inner Harbor East master plan to allow construction of the 750-room hotel just south of Little Italy.
An even tougher sell could come in Annapolis, as the city seeks a change in state law to circumvent a citywide referendum on $21.75 million in bonds that would be issued with the expectation that property tax revenues generated would cover the debt.
Some leaders in the General Assembly, who have roundly criticized the project, call the chances of that change unlikely.
"I just know that it will virtually be impossible for the General Assembly to support a waiver of a referendum for this particular project," said Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
"It's regrettable that we're in this position, and the mayor's trying to let politics and money decide our economic future. We're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."
With the debate now turning to the City Council, council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who also is president of the Board of Estimates, insisted yesterday that the city proceed with a hotel at the Camden Yards site.
"The hotel next to the convention center is absolutely vital to the convention center, and I do not want to support the East Harbor hotel without at the same time supporting a convention center hotel," Bell said.
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector agreed, and promised a fight when the hotel comes before the council.
"This is no way to run a railroad -- or fill a convention center. I can't imagine why the mayor is being so intractable, it boggles my mind," said the 5th District Democrat. "It's poison fruit from a poison tree. We have to be very business-like about this decision, and this is just not good business sense."
Before the board's 5-0 vote, Michael Beatty, the Wyndham's development director, touted the hotel, which has grown from 27 to 45 stories, as an anchor to spread development eastward.