City Council considers hotel plan amendments


News from around the Baltimore region

July 12, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Proposed changes would ensure living wage, open board meetings

While some Baltimore City Council members continued to stridently object to plans for a publicly funded convention center hotel, signs emerged yesterday that some elected officials see room for compromise in the controversial proposal.

Council President Sheila Dixon introduced a number of draft amendments to bills before the council that would pave the way for a $305 million Hilton that the city would own and develop.

Last week, only three of the council's 15 members told The Sun they fully supported the hotel. The amendments address some of the other members' concerns, though not the most serious ones - the lack of a private investor and whether the need for a hotel to bolster the convention center rivals other city problems such as neighborhood blight.

Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, who supports the project, said after the meeting that, while some of the opposition is firmly entrenched, she's confident the majority will come around - probably before July 27, when the council could vote on the proposal.

"People may be concerned because this is a novel way of doing things," said Rawlings Blake. "But this novel idea presents unique opportunities for the city."

Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency, and Mayor Martin O'Malley say the city needs the 752-room hotel, which would be built adjacent to the downtown convention center, to remain competitive in the convention industry.

The draft amendments would assure a living wage for hotel workers and force the board that would oversee the hotel to follow Maryland's open meetings law.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. proposed an amendment that would require the hotel plan to go to a referendum in the next election, but the city's law department said the council does not appear to have the power to do that.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she is pleased with the living-wage guarantee - an issue she had been vocal about the past few weeks.

Though that alone isn't enough to win her support, Clarke said, it's a start and shows there is room for compromise.

"It seems to be open to all kinds of amendments," she said.

In addition to the amendments, hotel advocates also were stepping up their efforts yesterday to pacify the opposition behind the scenes.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the mayor was conferring with Dixon and had begun calling council members to win their support.

Although the Planning Commission and major unions enthusiastically endorse the project, for the last month it's received near nonstop criticism. Everyone from inner-city clergy demanding aid for Baltimore's struggling neighborhoods to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan to a report by the Abell Foundation has disapproved of elements of the plan.

But the sharpest criticism is coming from the council itself, despite continued assurances from the BDC and tourism officials that the hotel would pay for itself and be an "acceptable" risk for the city to take on.

"How can you expect us to believe Baltimore is one of the world's top destinations for tourists ... but no one wants to do this with us?" Councilwoman Helen L. Holton angrily asked. "Something about that doesn't fit."

Councilman James B. Kraft, a solid member of the opposition, grilled BDC and Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association officials on aspects of the plan, including BACVA's ability and readiness to book groups for the proposed hotel.

When Ronnie Burt, the association's vice president of convention sales, told Kraft that BACVA didn't have a "proactive" selling plan before he arrived this spring, Kraft responded, "Did we need you to arrive from Atlanta to tell us we needed proactive selling teams?"

Kraft also referred to a report done before the center's expansion asserting that Baltimore had enough hotel rooms to handle the additional conventioneers.

"The state of Maryland was virtually assured this was not going to be a cycle of build a convention center and having to build a hotel to support it," he said.

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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