Just 2 take first step toward hotel deal

Md., Ga. developers attend meeting with Baltimore officials

January 07, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Just two developers came to town yesterday for a closed-door meeting with city officials looking to hire a team to build Baltimore's $250 million convention headquarters hotel.

This was the only opportunity the developers had to meet face-to-face with the officials - and to get a glimpse of the competition - before a Jan. 27 deadline to submit a proposal.

There may be more developers submitting proposals for a hotel, which the city wants to open in 2006 next to its recently expanded convention center. But only the two companies, one from Maryland and the other from Georgia, have thus far come forward.

"It was a typical step in the process to give everyone interested in submitting a proposal a chance to ask questions in person," said Robert C. Hazard III, a Pittsburgh-based consultant working with one of the developers. "It was sparsely attended. ... I was surprised there were only two. I don't know what to make of that because there are rumors others are interested."

Hazard said attendance was not required, but the meetings generally show who is serious about a project. He said that besides his team, led by Atlanta-based Portman Holdings LP, one of the nation's largest convention hotel developers, the only other developer in attendance was RLJ Development LLC, the Bethesda-based company led by Robert L. Johnson, founder and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television.

"It was informative, we got answers to some of our questions and we're moving forward with our proposal," said Tom Baltimore, an executive with RLJ, who represented that team yesterday. "We expect other bidders."

RLJ's proposal for a 750-room Hilton, submitted with Quadrangle Development Corp., was trumpeted in a news conference at City Hall in November.

City officials said at the time that it would invite competition to bid on the hotel because it would be built on city-owned land. Like most other convention hotels built today, it would also be publicly subsidized, although the extent of taxpayer dollars in the project has not been determined.

Once the proposals are submitted, the city will take a month or two to review them. The proposals are to include such information as cost, method of financing, hotel brand name and need for public subsidies.

The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development arm, will choose a team to negotiate a deal. The mayor and City Council will ultimately approve the development deal.

The BDC, which helped link the members of Johnson's group and map out the large development, has said the process is not automatically tilted toward one proposal. M.J. "Jay" Brodie, head of the BDC, was not available for comment yesterday.

Hazard said he believed the process would be fair, although he thought the 60-day period to submit a proposal was short. He said the period, which included Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, may keep other developers away.

He also said BDC might be predisposed to the RLJ proposal because officials there had helped formulate it.

The site, Hazard said, would be tricky to develop because a Maglev train station needs to be incorporated in the plan even though Baltimore may not get the high-speed train service. The site also has height restrictions because of helicopters that fly over on their way to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. There are also many utility lines that cannot be moved.

While Johnson's group included space for the new headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, that is not a requirement.

"We have a lot of experience," said Hazard, who has been involved in several major convention hotel projects in other cities. "We think our proposal is in the best interests of Baltimore, and our argument will be compelling."

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