Duncan questions plan for public to pay for city hotel

Would-be governor courts Baltimore ministers group

July 08, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan questioned yesterday the public financing of Baltimore's proposed convention center hotel, directly challenging a project of his likely chief Democratic rival in next year's campaign for governor.

The visit to Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance marked yet another effort by Duncan to come to Mayor Martin O'Malley's home turf and court his constituents - in this case, a federation of clergy representing more than 200 city churches.

"The question I have with the hotel," Duncan said, "is if it's going to be that successful, why does the public have to pay? Where is the private sector?"

Duncan addressed about 20 religious leaders in the basement of the Trinity Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue.

In February, at another city church, Duncan, with a number of black ministers at his side, decried slot machines, which O'Malley had just endorsed in "limited numbers" for Pimlico Race Course.

The ministers, who oppose slots, embraced Duncan's anti-gambling message, just as they seemed to appreciate his taking their side on the proposed hotel.

Last week, BUILD, a faith-based nonprofit organization that includes many members of the Ministerial Alliance, demanded that if Baltimore leaders support a $305 million revenue bond for the downtown hotel, they should devote equal resources to wiping out blight from depressed neighborhoods.

"You all are right to say don't forget us in the neighborhoods," Duncan told the clergy.

O'Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein slammed both Duncan's message and his timing.

"On a day when you would expect that most local executives are concerned about protecting our cities and counties, especially so close to the nation's capital," Epstein said, alluding to the bombings in London, "it's surprising that Doug Duncan is up in Baltimore meddling in issues he knows nothing about and distorting the mayor's position on slots."

O'Malley and the city's development and tourism officials say the hotel, which would be the city's costliest public project, is necessary to salvage Baltimore's stagnant convention business.

The city would develop and own the 752-room Hilton, which would be built adjacent to the downtown convention center.

And though the city received proposals that would have used private money along with public subsidies to build the hotel, advocates for the plan say public financing is the only feasible option.

Duncan pointed out that in his jurisdiction, the new $80 million Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center was built using half private money, half state and local funds.

"If the private sector doesn't want to invest anything, that's a real concern," Duncan said. "That's something you should be very, very careful about."

Some city hotel advocates and O'Malley supporters said they were put off by Duncan's criticism of the project.

"I find it offensive that County Executive Duncan is coming up here and popping off about something he doesn't know about," Councilman Robert W. Curran said. "The Baltimore City Council is reviewing this, not the Montgomery County Council."

Union leader Ron DeJuliis, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, called Duncan's visit "inappropriate."

Though BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, is nonpartisan and doesn't endorse candidates, the Ministerial Alliance does. Historically, a nod from the powerful group was one of the most coveted endorsements in Baltimore. In recent years, however, its influence has seemed to wane.

In the 1999 mayoral election, for instance, the group endorsed former City Councilman Carl Stokes. But O'Malley, who had the backing of other prominent black leaders and clergy, won handily.

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