Rawlings questions site selection, calls for smaller Inner...

SATURDAY MAIL BOX

September 06, 1997

Rawlings questions site selection, calls for smaller Inner 0) Harbor East hotel

In the Aug. 24 Sun, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attempted to defend the decision to commit substantial public resources to a planned hotel in Inner Harbor East. I must take issue with his arguments.

The location of a new major hotel is crucial to the success of the Baltimore Convention Center and the continued economic development of the Inner Harbor. The state and city together have invested more than $150 million in the Convention Center recently and continue to support its operating deficits. We must protect taxpayers' investment.

More than once in his commentary, the mayor stressed the ''clear and open process'' that led to the Inner Harbor East decision and the importance of preserving ''the integrity of that process.'' I have learned of several occurrences, many reported in the media, that make me seriously doubt the integrity of the process.

The Baltimore Development Corp. issued a ''request for proposals'' for a hotel in downtown Baltimore. After thoroughly reviewing the three proposals received, the BDC staff recommended to the BDC board the proposal for an 800-room Westin hotel on the former News American site, across the street from the main attractions of the Inner Harbor and two blocks from the Convention Center.

The BDC board did not accept the recommendation of BDC President M.J. Brodie and his staff. Instead, the board voted to choose the Inner Harbor East hotel proposal, with only four of nine members voting, one of whom was a city administration official.

BDC Chairman Roger Lipitz, who was one of three members who abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest, wrote the mayor that he believed that if more members had voted, a ''significant minority'' would have opposed the Inner Harbor East selection.

Mr. Lipitz subsequently urged the mayor to choose a site closer to the Convention Center. The mayor said the hotel decision was made after careful and deliberative review and was not made ''arbitrarily or capriciously.'' I don't know what to call it if not arbitrary and capricious.

In addition, a relative of a high-level BDC staff member who supervised the board's ultimate decision was part of the winning Inner Harbor East proposal. Despite the mayor's strong advice, the staffer did not seek an ethics opinion and did not publicly reveal this apparent conflict of interest.

I have also learned that a key member of the Schmoke administration strongly suggested to the Inner Harbor East development team the inclusion of the minority construction firm H.J. Russell of Atlanta only days before the original RFP deadline, which shortly thereafter was extended nearly a month. H.J. Russell was indeed included in the winning bid.

The integrity of the process is in serious doubt in my mind when votes are taken with fewer than a majority voting and the actions of the Baltimore City administration and the Baltimore Development Corp. are questionable.

The mayor rightly points out that no developer proposed a hotel on the city-owned lots west of the Convention Center -- where Orioles owner Peter Angelos is now proposing an 850-room Grand Hyatt -- and questions the profitability of a hotel on that site.

A Legg Mason study commissioned by the BDC ranked the site next to the Convention Center No. 1.

What the mayor also failed to point out is that the city only made one of the two-acre lots available for bid the first time around. Mr. Angelos has said that he looked at design plans for a hotel on the two-acre lot but was not able to squeeze such a large hotel onto such a small lot.

It was only after the decision to build a major convention center headquarters hotel more than a mile from the Convention Center was made that Mr. Angelos came forward.

I strongly disagree with the mayor's suggestion that hotel proximity to the Convention Center has been overplayed. The original RFP stated that proposals were to address the primary need of serving the expanded Convention Center.

A hotel in Inner Harbor East more than a mile from the Convention Center will not serve the need adequately.

Convention bookings are still low for 1999 and beyond. Baltimore Convention Center officials, the business community, meeting planners and a Legg Mason study commissioned by the BDC have all said Baltimore needs a Convention Center headquarters hotel, which should be connected to or as near as possible to the Convention Center.

The Grand Hyatt would be connected to the Convention Center. The Westin would be two blocks from the Convention Center and connected to the Renaissance Hotel next door, providing a block of more than 1,000 rooms for large conventions. Either site fits the need for a Convention Center headquarters hotel.

I agree with the mayor that Baltimore's strength as a destination spot is its waterfront, and that the success of the Inner Harbor is spreading eastward. Baltimore's ''Second Renaissance'' is coming.

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