Hotel idea can work for city, if city can work for hotel

July 10, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

MARTIN O'MAYOR wants Baltimore to undertake one of the costliest public construction projects in its history - a $305 million, 752-room downtown convention hotel - and while there are a lot of risky aspects to this proposal, the City Council should go for it. But only under the following conditions:

At least 80 percent of the staff for the hotel, from concierge to kitchen to housekeeping, must be city residents.

A high percentage - say, 50 or even 60 percent - of the staff must be identified as "new workers," meaning previously unemployed or underemployed Baltimore residents who are specifically trained for full-time, unionized jobs in the hotel.

There should be no barriers to Baltimoreans who step up to get into the pipeline for these 500-plus positions. All must get a chance, including the at-risk, the drug-addicted, and some of the 8,000 or so ex-offenders who come out of Maryland prisons each year and return to Baltimore.

The new workers should be eligible for all levels of hotel work, including management. (In the past month, I've met two retired drug dealers, ages 26 and 36; had they chosen a different career path, these guys could have been running small businesses by now, and they certainly could be banquet managers.)

Once approved, the hotel won't open for at least three years.

Recruit these new workers starting in 2006 and train them. Use federal and state funds through the Mayor's Office of Employment Development to place them in six- or 12-month apprenticeships at other hotels or restaurants. By 2008, they'll be ready for the opening.

If the O'Malley administration is going to have the city in the hotel business, then this new convention headquarters should serve the citizens of Baltimore. Tourists and conventioneers from all over the world will stay in this hotel; people from places like Tivoly Avenue and Mosher Street ought to be the ones who run the place and work there.

Baltimoreans who already have jobs, and who pay the property taxes that keep this city afloat, will benefit because these new workers will no longer be a drain and a pain, no longer selling or using dope. An effort like this will reduce - if only by fractions, but we'll take what we can get - the number of Baltimoreans returning to a Maryland prison, relapsing into heroin addiction or getting a bullet in the head.

In fact, the new workers will join the ranks of taxpayers and might even become proud citizens and homeowners, better parents, more engaged in their children's welfare and education.

Certain city ministers and community organizations hate this hotel proposal. They see the city spending $305 million for another downtown building while poor neighborhoods go begging for redevelopment.

It would be nice if the mayor of Baltimore stood with City Council President Sheila Dixon, who has been taking all the heat, to say why he supports the new hotel and to list specifically what the city is doing to address neighborhood needs.

Martin O'Malley could embrace this idea of a high percentage of hotel jobs going to new workers on these grounds: Without good, steady jobs for Baltimoreans, no amount of neighborhood redevelopment is going to matter. If thousands of Baltimoreans are still hooked on heroin, still involved in the drug trade, still returning from prison aimless and unskilled, they will never get out off the dead-end streets.

"Baltimore's hotels are booming. There's not one that's not profitable," says Jay Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp. and chief advocate for the new hotel.

For workers, this is a relatively progressive time in the hospitality industry. Hotels are offering more careers, better pay and benefits, especially in urban areas. According to the International Executive Housekeepers Association, the annual turnover rate among hotel workers has fallen to nearly half what it was in 1990.

The city already has a pipeline connecting hotels with "new workers," involving the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, the BDC and the industry. There needs to be an escalation of effort, perhaps pulling in Goodwill Industry's ex-offenders program and others like it, to create a full-service pipeline to the jobs. Drug treatment, life-skills training, high school equivalency classes all need to be included.

My first reaction to this city-owned hotel was negative. If the capital markets aren't interested, why should local government take the risk?

But I no longer think it's an outrageous risk. The city is the owner and developer. It's not giving money to a private developer (as the Schmoke administration did, to the tune of $43 million, for the Marriott Waterfront). There is a multilayered backup plan to cover annual debt in case of any revenue shortfalls. The hotel will be built in a prime location near the convention center, Camden Yards and the west-side redevelopment project. We just had 20,000 Shriners here and they were scattered all over the 'burbs because there weren't enough downtown hotel rooms for them.

I say build the Hilton, but at the same time build a first-class work force out of Baltimore's underclass.

And one more condition: Every Baltimore taxpayer gets one free night's stay, or at least a free mimosa at Sunday brunch.

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