Slowing Wyndham's fast track Inner Harbor: Requiring voter approval of hotel aid could hinder economic development.

January 16, 1998

TALK ABOUT FAST track. Although a financing package for the publicly subsidized $132.6 million Inner Harbor East Wyndham hotel is not even completed, a contractor is already working on a sewer system to accommodate the 41-story project. With equipment on site, pipe laying seems likely to begin before the City Council takes its final vote on the controversial development scheme. That vote is expected in March at the earliest.

City Hall's disregard for an orderly governmental authorization process explains why some Baltimore legislators, led by Del. Howard P. Rawlings and Sen. Perry Sfikas, advocate bills that would require voter approval of public subsidies exceeding $5 million used in any Baltimore hotel projects. "If the local level is not going to act responsibly, then we have to step in," Mr. Sfikas explained.

We have repeatedly questioned the wisdom of hefty public subsidies for a hotel that is too far away to bolster bookings at the Baltimore Convention Center. Large taxpayer subsidies -- initially projected at more than $50 million -- make no sense from an economic or public policy standpoint.

However, a City Charter requirement to subject hotel subsidies to a referendum also is a bad idea. It would likely kill not only the proposed Inner Harbor Wyndham but other new hotels by adding uncertainty and delays to a development process that already is time-consuming, expensive and tricky.

Because of opposition by key legislative leaders, especially House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the well-motivated but misguided referendum measures have no chance of being enacted. That is a relief.

Baltimore desperately needs more hotel rooms. But those that benefit from huge taxpayer subsidies ought to be close to the Convention Center, which was recently expanded at a cost to taxpayers of more than $150 million. Marylanders will have to shell out even more money if the center does not generate enough business to take care of debt service.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration has shown an unwavering commitment to the Wyndham project, despite serious questions about the skyscraper hotel's economic benefits and impact on the surrounding neighborhood. As long as such doubts persist, proposed public subsidies are likely to encounter challenges like the referendum pushed by Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Sfikas -- and more lawsuits.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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