Rawlings backs off Wyndham opposition Balto. Democrat seeks voter OK on hotel plans

January 30, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Encouraged by plans for a hotel next to Baltimore's Convention Center, state Del. Howard P. Rawlings decided yesterday to put off his attempt to block the controversial Wyndham tower east of the Inner Harbor.

But Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, still wants to force the city to get voter approval for both publicly subsidized hotels.

The Baltimore Democrat introduced a bill that would require a referendum, even as he said the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had relieved "some of the pressure" by backing a second hotel beside the Convention Center. The Wyndham will be a mile away.

Last week, Schmoke's economic development agency gave the go-ahead to Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos to develop an 850-room Grand Hyatt on city land adjacent to the Convention Center.

"My concern," Rawlings said, "has been to protect the investment" in the center's $151 million expansion, which was paid for with state and city funds.

Worried that the Wyndham will be too far away for conventioneers, Rawlings had threatened to try to end the state's obligation to pay $3.9 million in annual subsidies for the Convention Center. His bill would have halted the subsidy if the Wyndham was larger than 350 rooms. Plans for the tower call for 750 rooms, though the City Council reduced its height from 48 stories to 41.

The historic waterfront neighborhoods that would lie in the shadow of the Wyndham have called for a referendum. But the effort has little chance because key General Assembly leaders oppose it. Schmoke is lobbying against it while pushing the Wyndham as a way to spread the vibrancy of the tourism district beyond downtown.

"I have my work cut out for me," said Sen. Perry Sfikas, also a Baltimore Democrat who is introducing a companion bill urging a referendum. But he added: "If we're talking about massive public subsidies, the folks in the community deserve to have a say, especially on an issue as controversial as this one."

Baking magnate John Paterakis Sr. wants to open the Wyndham in 2000. Angelos hopes to complete the Grand Hyatt in 2001. Both men are seeking tens of millions of dollars in tax waivers and other public subsidies, but no direct state aid.

Rawlings said he would take no action for the time being on his bill to stop state subsidies to the Convention Center after a hearing at which city tourism officials promised the Grand Hyatt would become its "headquarters hotel."

Without state and city aid, the Convention Center would be forced to raise its artificially low rates and quickly lose business, warned Peggy Daidakis, the executive director. "We don't want to defeat our mission to become the destination of choice on the East Coast," she said.

Despite a significant pickup in business, the Convention Center expansion, completed last spring, is struggling to deliver its promised payoff. Utility bills have been higher than anticipated. Convention bookings remain short of projections, and two major groups recently canceled planned meetings.

Daidakis and Carroll R. Armstrong, head of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said they are confident the center will attract more bookings.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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