Wyndham referendum in city sought Legislators want voters to decide on public funds for hotel

Rawlings, Sfikas craft bill

Schmoke vows to fight latest obstacle to plan for Inner Harbor East

January 10, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews and Brenda J. Buote | Robert Guy Matthews and Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

In yet another attempt to stop construction of the Wyndham Inner Harbor East hotel, state lawmakers have drafted legislation that would force the city to win voter approval before spending public money for the controversial $132 million project.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the lead sponsor of the House bill, said yesterday that he is opposing the convention hotel because the city has failed to drastically reduce the scale of the proposed 750-room Wyndham tower and support a second hotel adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center.

A companion bill will be introduced in the Senate by state Sen. Perry Sfikas when the General Assembly goes into session next week.

The bill would change the City Charter to require a referendum if a public subsidy of more than $5 million is used to construct any hotel in Baltimore, said Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat.

Baking magnate John Paterakis Sr., who would build the proposed Wyndham, wants $40 million to $50 million in public subsidies.

"I believe that if the referendum is approved and takes place, the citizens will reject it [paying for the hotel]," said Rawlings, also a Baltimore Democrat.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has strongly endorsed and lobbied for the Wyndham, said he will fight the legislation.

"I don't think the city delegation will be in support of this bill," Schmoke said last night. "It's written so broadly -- it includes any lodging establishment -- that if the city was trying to assist a motel in Baltimore in any way, it would have to go to a referendum.

"That is simply not good for the economic development of the city. It would hurt Baltimore's ability to attract business and get new jobs here."

Although the Wyndham would be nearly a mile east of the Convention Center, Schmoke is pushing for the hotel because, he said, it would be a catalyst for further development east of the Inner Harbor.

Rawlings, the powerful head of the House Appropriations Committee, said the distance between the Wyndham and the city's newly expanded Convention Center would not best serve the needs of conventioneers.

"I'm going to protect the $100 million investment that the state made" in the Convention Center," Rawlings said.

Jennifer Etheridge, president of the Fells Point Homeowners Association and an opponent of the proposed hotel, said she supports the idea of a referendum, which would be on the ballot in the gubernatorial election in November.

"This certainly is an issue that people have strong feelings about, one way or another," Etheridge said. "So, before such a large amount of money is spent on this hotel, I think the taxpayers

should decide if they really want it or not."

The city has been dragging its feet in deciding what to do with the vacant land adjacent to the Convention Center.

The proposals for the site include building a Grand Hyatt Hotel or a parking lot that could service the Convention Center and the Orioles and Ravens stadiums.

The City Council must take up the hotel issue again, possibly at its meeting Jan. 26.

Late last year, the council thought it had reached a compromise between developers who wanted a 750-room, 48-story hotel -- which would be the second-tallest building in Baltimore -- and critics who wanted a much shorter, smaller one: It approved a 41-story hotel that would have the same number of rooms.

Community groups protested, filing a lawsuit in December claiming that the city had failed to follow state laws when the project was reviewed by the council. In approving the project, the council amended the urban renewal ordinance that banned any structure on the waterfront taller than 180 feet.

Rawlings sent the council a letter late last year demanding that the city accept his demands or risk state intervention.

"It is very clear that I said 10 stories, they [the City Council] went down seven," Rawlings said. "The other element was that they would approve a convention headquarters hotel site in close proximity to the Convention Center."

Still to be debated by the council are the amount and types of public subsidies for the proposed hotel. Some council members have said they would withhold their support of the hotel if construction needed to be subsidized with city loans, grants or parking revenue bonds.

Apparently, Rawlings and Sfikas don't believe the council will be able to block the mayor from getting the public subsidies he is seeking.

"We're talking about a lot of taxpayer money, money that folks have worked very, very hard for," Sfikas said. "This just lets the people of Baltimore City have a say in this whole process. It's simply not appropriate to give massive subsidies to a hotel without allowing the voters to have a say in the process."

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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