Pivotal time for tourism

Industry is anxious about hotel and center


January 12, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

In coming months, the region faces critical decisions that could determine the future of Baltimore's convention center and shape the area's tourism industry for years to come.

Baltimore should learn whether a long-awaited convention center hotel will finally get off the ground. Change is expected at the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, which just concluded a tumultuous year in which it underwent a top-to-bottom review of its operations. And the fate of Baltimore's children's museum, Port Discovery, may become clear as the financially troubled institution mulls a new home and tries to attain stability.

By many accounts, 2003 is shaping up as a year of uncertainty and transition in Baltimore's tourism industry.

The Baltimore Development Corp. expects to select a developer for a convention headquarters hotel on city-owned land just west of the Baltimore Convention Center after a Jan. 27 deadline for proposals. The city asked for proposals after receiving an unsolicited bid from Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson and Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington to build a 750-room Hilton on the site.

A headquarters hotel is critical for Baltimore to secure its place as a contender in the convention business and for the expanded convention center to live up to its potential, Carroll R. Armstrong, BACVA president and chief executive, has long said.

Baltimore has come close before to landing a convention hotel when Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos proposed a $175 million Grand Hyatt in 1998 that would have connected to the Baltimore Convention Center. But the proposal died after two years of negotiations. Another plan for a 600-room Westin at the former News American site also fell through. John Paterakis Sr.'s 750-room Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel opened in February 2001.

Now, at a time when financing hotels is difficult, there's general agreement that a convention headquarters hotel will be needed.

Still unknown is how much of a public subsidy will be involved and what form it will take. Just as Baltimore has taken a step closer to landing a headquarters hotel, BACVA, which is responsible for booking conventions and trade shows, has come under scrutiny. A review and evaluation by an outside consultant was launched last year after articles in The Sun reported that the $151 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center had not lived up to projections.

In closed-door board meetings, there have been discussions of scenarios under which Armstrong would step down and be replaced.

"Certainly at BACVA you're going to see change," said Mary Jo McCulloch, president of both the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association and the Maryland Tourism Council. "We're not looking forward to a very prosperous several years at BACVA. All of that cuts into occupancy numbers. That's going to be a major discussion topic until the BACVA board can digest and make appropriate changes as recommended."

Overall, state tourism officials project visitor volume in Maryland to rise slightly to 19.9 million in 2003, up from 19.6 million visitors in 2002, according to Hannah L. Byron, the state's director of tourism.

Average visitor spending is expected to remain flat at $337 for both 2002 and 2003, she said. But the state's goal is always to boost that number along with length of stay.

Among the attractions that state tourism officials hope will entice visitors to stay longer and spend more in 2003 are: a new Star-Spangled Banner Museum at the Flag House in Baltimore and a new piece of Civil War trail leading to Gettysburg, Pa. Tourism officials also hope that tour groups will add a stop at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament at Arundel Mills, where 1,000 guests at a time can dine medieval style and watch knights joust and horses do choreographed routines.

All three are slated to open in June.

"I am optimistic for next year," Byron said. "I think the numbers have proven we have a right to be optimistic. If you look at how well we've done in 2002 even with the flattening of the economy and on the heels of 9/11, then imagine the growth we should experience with all the new product in 2003."

Across the state, in Garrett County, early cold temperatures and snow catapulted that region into what tourism leaders hope will be a blockbuster season.

"We had our best summer ever, and we're on track to have our best winter ever," said Charlie Ross, president of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. "I think, finally, people are taking notice of Garrett County. The natural beauty has always been here. Now we're getting to the point where we have the facilities and services to match."

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