What do people want Annapolis to be?


September 07, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

ONE OF THE MOST important issues of Annapolis' current election campaign isn't getting enough attention:

What is the economic future of the city?

Annapolis' tax base needs strengthening. Nearly 40 percent of the city's land is tax-exempt. Between the land that is owned by the various levels of government and that which is owned by tax-exempt groups, about 40 percent of the city's assessable base generates no income.

The means the burden of taxation falls on a much narrower base. Cities in similar circumstances make a great effort to cultivate business investment because commercial and business properties produce more taxes than houses.

Developing a healthy business climate should be a mother-and-apple-pie issue in Annapolis, yet city politicians handle it as if it were a live grenade.

City politicians know from past donnybrooks that innocuous issues such as whether to allow Main Street restaurants to open sidewalk tables or to allow a yogurt stand to open downtown can explode into career-damaging political battles.

Economic development issues highlight the fact that Annapolitans have two conflicting visions of their city.

People whose families have lived in Annapolis for years, in some cases generations, see the city as a place to earn a living as well as to live. As much as they would like the state capital to remain a quaint little town by the bay, they are much more willing to tolerate change. They know that if their children are to remain in the community when they grow up, Annapolis will have to have the jobs to employ them.

Another segment of the population, generally made up of people who live in Annapolis but earn their livings somewhere outside the city, wants to freeze the city as it is. For them, Annapolis is a bedroom community with more attractive and exciting amenities than the typical suburban subdivision.

Reconciling these two views isn't easy, particularly since tourism has emerged as the city's most dynamic industry.

The proposal to build a conference center may be the only issue where it is easy to see these two differing views come to a head.

A conference center, according to three different consultants, would give a big boost to the city's tourism-related businesses. State groups and organizations that usually hold meetings in Ocean City or Baltimore would meet in the city. People attending meetings would spend money on food, drink and entertainment. They might even stay a day or two in a hotel and buy some souvenirs. This spending would provide income for city employees and increase Annapolis' general prosperity.

The economic benefits from a conference center are obvious.

Instead, the issue is now whether or not the city should contribute a portion of the estimated $20 million construction cost. State and county governments have already committed themselves to financing most of the project. They believe, however, that Annapolis -- the jurisdiction that stands to benefit most -- should pay some of the cost.

Those politicians who support the city contribution also seem to understand that Annapolis' well-being depends on retaining existing jobs and creating more of them. They know that a conference center can be a catalyst for additional tourist-related investment. They also seem to know that if the city doesn't participate in the financing, there is little chance a center will be built.

Opponents like to say that if an Annapolis conference center is such a good idea, private enterprise should built it. Of course, there are few privately owned or financed convention centers in this country. Like athletic stadiums, they tend to be public facilities.

Without a conference center, Annapolis is likely to change very little. For various reasons -- some claim it is the city's perceived anti-business climate -- large-scale development is unlikely.

At present, developers seem to prefer investing around the periphery of Annapolis and avoiding seemingly attractive sites within the city. This development pattern doesn't bode well for building the city's tax base. Unless the city can annex these bTC properties just outside the city line, in Parole and elsewhere, these projects will only enrich Anne Arundel County.

Substance vacuum

It's unfortunate that none of these tough issues and their various consequences have been thoroughly discussed during the current campaign.

If city officials sincerely want to lessen the burden of real property taxes on residential property owners, they need to look hard at encouraging tourist-related businesses to locate within the city.

They also have to recognize that tourism has its downside. More visitors mean more traffic, more litter and more noise.

For people who want to freeze Annapolis in time and keep it for themselves, any politician who openly encourages tourism will not be well-received.

But if there is an alternative vision, we have yet to hear it.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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