BACVA won't release report evaluating it

Decision was made at closed-door meeting

Promise to release it reversed

`They have something to hide,' says Schaefer

January 25, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

In a reversal, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, the group charged with bringing convention business to Baltimore, will not release an independent consultant's evaluation of its operations.

The decision by the association, which receives public funds, drew strong objections from top state officials yesterday, a day after the organization's beleaguered chief executive announced his resignation.

The recently completed evaluation was ordered after The Sun published articles in June that showed a $151 million Baltimore Convention Center expansion failed to deliver the business it had projected.

Initially, association officials said the report would be released to the public.

But William T. Walsh, general manager of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel and chairman of the association's review and evaluation committee, said the board had voted in a closed-door meeting Tuesday to keep confidential the report by the consultant, Performance Management Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

"The board looks at this report as an internal document," he said. "We don't plan on releasing the document outside the organization. ... We consider it contains a lot of marketing information and proprietary information. We don't want other cities knowing how Baltimore markets."

Clarence T. Bishop, the convention and visitors association's chairman and recently appointed chief of staff to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, did not return phone calls.

An association spokesman said Walsh had the authority to speak for the organization in regard to the review. O'Malley also did not return phone calls.

But one state official, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - a former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor - criticized the decision to keep the report under wraps.

"My first reaction would be I think they have something to hide," Schaefer said yesterday. "I'm sure the report isn't good. ... If it was a glowing report, they'd just hand it to you."

"They're making it worse by hiding it," he said. "They might as well give it out and get it over with. ... I think the state should have a copy of it."

The governor's office said yesterday that it was working to determine how much public money went to finance the convention and visitors association.

" ... The use of public money seems to be a compelling argument for full disclosure," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, deputy press secretary for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"When they announced full disclosure this [marketing and proprietary] information was in this document. What changed?"

As recently as late November, Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the association, said that once the evaluation was complete, the report would be made public after it had been presented to the board, the staff, and members and shareholders. But this month, Walsh began to shift that position.

"Part of the plan will be now that we have this, how do we release it and how much of it do we release. The decision to release or not release the report has been put into the evaluation committee's hands for recommendations to the full board later this month," he said at the time.

Since the report was completed, the association's leadership has kept a tight lid on it. Copies have not been distributed to the full board, though it has been briefed on the findings.

Such a position is the opposite of the policy adopted by Cincinnati's convention bureau, which made public an independent review of its operations in 2001. The review included an examination of overall operations to establish ways to strengthen long-term sales, productivity and marketing.

Officials of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association have never revealed what ground the evaluation covered.

But in June, O'Malley had asked that the review include an audit of the number of hotel rooms rented for conventions.

He also wanted a thorough analysis of the association's contribution to convention center bookings since the center's expansion, compared with projections from a 1993 feasibility study.

He asked, too, for a review of BACVA's marketing expenditures and the methods used to target conventions.

The Sun reported in November that the consultants were critical of the organization's effectiveness and that Carroll R Armstrong would be replaced as BACVA president and chief executive, though his departure would be delayed several months to allow for a "soft landing."

Armstrong's resignation, effective Feb. 1, was announced Thursday.

The report comes at a critical time for the association. Not only are the city's convention bookings continuing to lag, but the association must now launch a search for a new president and chief executive.

In addition, after receiving an unsolicited bid for a convention headquarters hotel adjacent to the convention center, the city is seeking proposals from other developers. City officials have said such a hotel would require a substantial public subsidy.

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