Without more hotels, city can't be good host

Downtown: Baltimore cannot compete for lucrative conventions if it does not have enough hotel rooms.

February 12, 1999

MAYBE IT would be desirable for the state to take over operation of the Baltimore Convention Center, as Comptroller William Donald Schaefer suggests. But in the end it really does not matter who runs that taxpayer-built facility -- as long as the city lacks adequate hotel capacity to attract major conventions.

Nearly two years after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Baltimore Development Corp. selected the site farthest from the Convention Center for a new city-subsidized hotel, prospects for additional hotel rooms are uncertain. Meanwhile, Circuit Court rulings have invalidated a city mechanism to provide tax breaks not only for the controversial Inner Harbor East Wyndham Hotel but also for other proposed hotels that aren't on municipal land.

Baltimore's inability to get its act together isn't lost on convention planners. Two major conventions -- the National Association of Orthodontists and the Society of Nuclear Medicine -- have pulled out of Baltimore, determining that rooms they required could not be built in time. The loss of more big convention business is likely.

Under these circumstances, it really does not matter who manages and markets the Convention Center. Baltimore is losing business because of a lack of convention hotels -- not a lack of interest.

As many as five new hotels have been discussed in the past two years; as of now, not one is a done deal. Among the hotels being held up by Judge Richard T. Rombro's Circuit Court rulings are the Wyndham, J. Joseph Clarke's proposed Embassy Suites at 1 Light St., and a hotel Kravco Corp. wants to build beside Baltimore City Community College on Lombard Street. Harvey Schulweis, who pledged to build a Westin off Pratt Street without taxpayer aid, says the time is not right. And Orioles owner Peter Angelos' plans for a Grand Hyatt next to the Convention Center are not yet final.

To trigger some progress, the city is proposing an emergency measure in the General Assembly that addresses the problems Judge Rombro objected in the tax-break legislation. But critics will have serious questions about the current draft.

Without a way to grant tax breaks to developers whose projects are deemed essential, Baltimore is badly handicapped. The city's nearest competitors -- Washington and Philadelphia -- have uncomplicated economic development tools, including the authority to grant tax breaks. Baltimore's loss is their gain.

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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