Fix the board

March 31, 2003

SELLING BALTIMORE just got tougher.

Down the pike, the nation's capital inaugurated over the weekend a gargantuan convention center. Twice as big as Baltimore's, it opens at a time when relentless expansion in many cities has produced a glut of convention space, intensifying cut-throat competition for business meetings in a down economy.

There is little Baltimore boosters can do about the glitzy 17-acre behemoth 40 miles away. However, they can - and must - insist that Baltimore gets a first-rate convention apparatus to rebuild its troubled tourism effort.

The starting point is obvious. Mayor Martin O'Malley must reconstitute the board of the taxpayer-financed Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. The current board is too tainted by its inability to spot or stop the irregularities - including phony performance figures - that led to the ouster of the group's president, Carroll R. Armstrong.

Equally troubling is the board's frequent failure to act as a group. Minutes show - and board members confirm - that far too often, important decisions have been made by committees or an informal inner circle. The full board's blessing has been sought only belatedly, sometimes by telephone.

This is no way to run an efficient organization. Little wonder BACVA has performed so poorly. It needs a new board and a new chairman.

Since both the BACVA head and the Convention Center's executive director report to the mayor, it is within his power to rectify this embarrassment. Baltimore already has enough impediments in its quest for tourists.

Foremost among them is the shortage of affordable hotel rooms.

An average room in Baltimore costs far more than the nationwide average, and there are too few of them.

"Room availability is a constant problem, and the existing shortage of downtown rooms prevents Baltimore from competing for much of the nation's meetings business," Performance Management Inc. consultants wrote. "What's more, the hotel community is viewed by meeting planners as unwilling to cooperate with other local tourism players in marketing Baltimore for the benefit of the city and the community as a whole."

The city is currently reviewing three rival proposals to construct a new hotel near the Convention Center. That should help.

In the end, though, the city's convention business can be reinvigorated only if BACVA is strengthened with purposeful new leadership.

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