Release the report

February 21, 2003

INDEFENSIBLE.

That's the word for the taxpayer-financed Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association's continuing refusal to release a report on its troubles.

Even BACVA board members say they have not received copies of the consultants' findings. The stated reason: a confidentiality agreement struck by Carroll R. Armstrong's lawyers as part of a separation package when the BACVA president was forced out last month. Nevertheless, BACVA has retained Mr. Armstrong as a consultant, reportedly at a full year's salary.

There is something very disturbing about this picture. Mr. Armstrong, who was under fire for months, either deserved to be terminated or didn't. There is no way for the public - or even for BACVA board members beyond a review committee - to know because the consultants' factual findings are not known. This is not right.

Meanwhile, a BACVA committee is searching for a new president. The ousted Mr. Armstrong, puzzlingly, is a member of the search committee. Its co-chair, Robert L. Steele III, general manager of the Hyatt Regency, says public knowledge of the consultants' evaluation is not "relevant." The public be damned.

Mayor Martin O'Malley must put an end to this travesty and order the consultants' report released. If that cannot be done, he ought to explain why. The longer the mystifying secrecy lasts, the more an appearance is created that BACVA has something serious to hide from the taxpayers. The mayor is tarnished in this as well; Clarence T. Bishop, the BACVA board chairman, is his chief of staff.

Baltimore's tourism industry is in deep trouble. Business has fallen off sharply. The Convention Center is empty much of the time; bookings for hotel rooms have plunged 62 percent from a year ago.

Worse yet, many day-trippers are also staying away. Roughly one-third of retail spaces in Harborplace are empty. Vacancies on this scale are unprecedented in the two signature pavilions' 23-year history.

This severe downturn in Baltimore's tourism efforts should have the taxpayers worried - until now, hotel taxes have covered debt service on the Convention Center and its costly expansion. If those revenues keep falling off, the budget implications could be truly alarming. But the first step toward reversing this trend is releasing that report.

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