Eyes on the ball

August 04, 2002

IT SPEAKS volumes about bakery magnate John Paterakis' deep pockets and self-confidence that he has announced plans to construct a 200-room Four Seasons luxury resort even though the hospitality industry nationwide is in the doldrums.

And he's not the only would-be hotel builder in Baltimore. Ritz-Carlton also hopes to introduce its top-tier brand here.

Baltimore's current room capacity is so limited that such opulent establishments would be welcomed. But they should not be financed through taxpayer subsidies.

Instead, Mayor Martin O'Malley and his Baltimore Development Corp. need to keep their eyes on the ball and focus on getting a true headquarters hotel built next to the underperforming Baltimore Convention Center. That is the best way to increase bookings at the center, which was built and expanded with taxpayers' money and which has never realized its full revenue potential.

City Hall cannot afford another hotel fiasco.

Six years ago, the BDC set out to sponsor a new 1,200-room headquarters hotel. But the quasi-governmental organization never specified the logical site - next to the Convention Center. The process then got politicized, distracting the BDC. It ended up subsidizing Mr. Paterakis' hotel project in Inner Harbor East, even though, at 750 rooms, it was too small and was located a mile away from the Convention Center.

At the present time, Baltimore has no real headquarters hotel. The city is also weak in the low-priced hotel category, which is important for family travelers and those considering an extended stay.

The proposed Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton properties would be hybrids, combining hotel rooms with full-service condominiums. Their primary customer base would not be tourists or conventioneers but well-heeled visitors, including those who need to be close to Baltimore's renowned medical institutions.

This niche, currently dominated by Harbor Court Hotel, has proved lucrative. But such establishments do little to address booking problems at the Convention Center.

The BDC has engaged a consultant to find a developer for a Convention Center hotel. That's the way to go. And such a hotel could justifiably ask for taxpayer subsidies.

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