Yesterday, Baltimore toasted the opening of its first major new hotel in more than a decade - the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel - a monolith that defied naysayers, lawsuits and other controversies to rise 32 stories above the Inner Harbor.
It was a day of thank-yous to local businessman John Paterakis Sr. - the man credited with dreaming into existence the $130 million hotel, with its spectacular water views and the largest ballroom in the state.
By all accounts, it was his passion, personal checks and sheer tenacity that drove the hotel to completion.
"It's a great day," said Paterakis, president of the $800 million-a-year H&S Bakery business. "We've all been looking forward to this day. Everyone thought it couldn't be done, and we did it."
Mayor Martin O'Malley and former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke were among the dignitaries on hand to celebrate Baltimore's new 750-room hotel at 700 Aliceanna St., on the edge of Little Italy.
"There was a lot of debate, should it be built here?" O'Malley said as he thanked Paterakis, Schmoke and others. "Look at the cranes. All of us who live in this city owe all of you a tremendous debt of thanks."
Schmoke stunned business leaders in February 1997 when he gave Paterakis' project the city's official blessing over proposals for an 800-room Westin on the former site of the News American building at 300 E. Pratt St. and a Cordish Co. plan for a 27-story, 800-room hotel on Pratt Street at Market Place.
Yesterday, Schmoke said he knew all along that it was the right location - even if the property was a mile from the Baltimore Convention Center.
Much of the criticism of the Paterakis project had focused on whether the site was close enough to serve as a convention headquarters hotel.
`Momentum moving east'
"I just kept seeing that the development momentum was moving east," Schmoke said.
"At some point, when the west-side development takes off, the business psychology will say that the west side is ready, and Carroll [Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association] will be able to get his headquarters hotel."
Schmoke had earned a chuckle from the audience of more than 230 when he mentioned that he had walked the distance between the convention center and the new Marriott and that it took him only 12 minutes.
Later, Schmoke clarified that he had timed the walk from the Legg Mason building, a block from the convention center, to the Marriott one day last week.
"This is an exciting moment for Baltimore," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "It's going to bring people to Baltimore who have never been here before. These are unparalleled views. They won't be blocked - ever."
But, Brodie was quick to add, "We could even use one more of these."
And how are plans for a large headquarters hotel near the convention center going?
"Slowly," he said.
Armstrong added, "We are in dire need of that headquarters hotel."
Nevertheless, the new Marriott will help with the overall package the city offers conventioneers, since Baltimore now will be able to commit 4,000 rooms within a mile of the convention center to large conventions, he said.
"This new hotel represents a whole new beginning for the city of Baltimore in the leisure and convention business, Armstrong said. "The location will not suffice as the convention center headquarters hotel; however, it's a great location for tying Fells Point to the Inner Harbor."
City officials and guests were invited to cut ribbons that spanned the 19,360-square-foot grand ballroom.
Marriott employees worked the crowd with serving trays piled high with 300 pairs of red-handled scissors.
Paterakis held a piece of gold ribbon as he talked to well-wishers. And many guests went home with souvenir snippings of the red brocade and gold lame ribbons.
Outside the ballroom, a double reception line of Marriott employees formed, about 40 strong, to applaud each guest upon leaving.
From the circular driveway out front to the marble foyer, and throughout the rich, carpeted hallways, smiling employees - 450 of them - were quick with a welcome and offer of help.
"Welcome to the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront," said David Utley, a doorman from Randallstown, wearing an old-style red brigade coat with long tails.
"It's my first day. I've never done this before. Things are going pretty well."
The first paying guest sauntered into the hotel, wearing a leather jacket and construction boots, about a minute past noon. He was a transplanted Baltimore native unaware of his role in the hotel's history.
"I got my room right away," said Ed Seward, a 53-year-old mining equipment businessman from Santa Rosa, Calif., once he realized he was the first guest.
"I assume it's a nice room, since it's the first one. It's on the 26th floor."