Warning that the Baltimore Convention Center risks becoming a "white elephant," hospitality industry leaders and a key legislator say the agency charged with bringing conventions and trade shows to the city should be examined and brought under the same umbrella as the Convention Center itself.
There is sharp disagreement, however, over whether the Convention Center should be expanded again and whether the city needs a headquarters hotel adjacent or nearby.
"If we're not attracting conventions, we ought to find out why," said Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association and the Maryland Tourism Council. "There should be a complete study of the internal workings, a look at the ship from top to bottom. If it's broken, let's get it fixed."
The Sun reported last week that, since a $151 million expansion that tripled the exhibit space in the complex, the Convention Center has failed to attract the number of conventions projected.
Further, combined attendance at conventions and trade shows - the two most critical categories - has never reached the 330,000 a year projected by backers of the expansion. And the economic impact numbers used to assess the center's performance are widely viewed by experts as inflated and misleading.
"You pointed out a hell of a problem if this monstrous investment sitting right there on the edge of the Inner Harbor is turning into a white elephant," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said. "I don't know how much more we need to wake us up."
For at least six years, Taylor said, he has advocated bringing the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA) and the Convention Center under one umbrella.
BACVA, headed by Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive, books the conventions and trade shows. The daily operation of the building is the responsibility of the Convention Center staff; Peggy Daidakis is executive director. Industry leaders say the current structure sometimes puts the Convention Center and its marketers at cross purposes. In other cities, there is no division between sales and operations, they say.
"All the pieces that make up the tourism industry in a community are so interrelated that if they're not all on the same page, money is going to be wasted, and activity is going to be duplicated, and you're not going to get the best bang for your buck," Taylor said. "It should all be under one centralized entity."
Resistance to consolidation, he said, has resulted largely from protecting "turf."
"When BACVA goes to sell the Convention Center, their hands are tied," McCulloch said. "They can't make deals like a hotel could. Now you've got one entity running the building, another entity trying to sell the building."
Bill Walsh, general manager of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel and one of two hoteliers on the 17-member BACVA board, said consolidation of functions is necessary.
"I believe we'd be better off to have the Convention Center and BACVA work as one," he said. "Each entity has its own priorities. If they were one cohesive unit, we might have a better opportunity to grow sales. I think the priorities of the center are not the priorities of BACVA."
Taylor said such a change probably could be achieved at the city government level. "If there is a need for the state to play a role, I, for one, would be right out front doing it," he said.
Last week, BACVA Chairman Clarence T. Bishop said his board is considering a top-to-bottom review that could include an audit of room nights - the number of hotel rooms used - and whether Baltimore is going after the right markets and using the best measurements to assess performance.
Others said such an examination is essential.
"Every business needs to do that from time to time," McCulloch said. "Frankly, I think the numbers indicate that this is necessary."
Though a consensus seems to be growing that BACVA's performance should be evaluated and its relationship with the Convention Center changed, there is no agreement on expanding the center again.
Armstrong has said he wants a marketing study conducted this year to explore expanding the center to double its exhibit space to 600,000 square feet, a project that would cost an estimated $250 million.
"Nobody at any time ever said you just go out and expand," he said. "You'd have to go ahead and show where we can sell the first one. That's why market studies are so important."
Cities across the country continue to expand their convention centers with disappointing results, and experts say the convention market is not growing anyway.
Given Baltimore's record, Taylor said, he could not support spending more money to study another expansion.
"That's not the most urgent thing we need," he said. "I would have to see evidence first of all. ... I don't think that the Convention Center needs to be expanded at this point."
McCulloch said an expansion should not be simply dismissed.