Un-conventional wisdom for Baltimore

Urban Chronicle

Tourism: A different approach might play better to the city's strengths.

July 21, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

AS THE Baltimore City Council prepares to consider the publicly financed convention center hotel, I thought I'd add my two cents' worth of observations to the debate over the $305 million project.

First, the vote over whether to approve funding for the project looms as the first real political test for the reconfigured council, which took office in December.

Individual accountability was a key reason community groups such as ACORN and the League of Women Voters pushed the ballot initiative to change the composition of the council from six three-member districts to 14 single-member districts, in each case with an at-large president.

In past years, council members could cast a controversial vote, then effectively insulate themselves from repercussions come election time by forming a ticket with their fellow district-mates.

This time around, council members will have to cast their vote and then stand alone and defend it two years hence to districts that are much smaller and more cohesive than before -- and theoretically more hospitable not only to Democratic primary challengers but to independent, third-party and Republican candidates. With powerful groups lining up on both sides of the debate -- the unions in favor, the church-based social action group BUILD against -- the potential political ramifications are interesting, to say the least.

The vote is a political test for Mayor Martin O'Malley as well. Since taking office 5 1/2 years ago, O'Malley has had his way with the council: It has raised taxes and added new ones when he needed it to, and cut them (as it did this spring) when he wanted it to.

To have the council rebel now against an initiative of this magnitude, as he is mounting a race for governor, would be a stinging blow indeed. Imagine the political mileage for Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, O'Malley's chief Democratic rival, who made a foray into the city this month to question the financing of the hotel: I'm glad the council followed my lead and not the mayor's.

Second, based on all of the public money it keeps demanding, the convention business must be the state's neediest industry, with the possible exception of horse racing.

For starters, it needed a $150 million, publicly financed convention center expansion. No sooner is that completed than it begins clamoring for a new hotel. When the Marriott Waterfront hotel, built with the help of taxpayer subsidies to the tune of about $50 million, opens, the industry complains it isn't close enough to the convention center.

I'm all for attracting new business to the city, especially in light of last week's news that Baltimore County has surpassed the city in jobs, but it would be nice to get some that would pay their own way.

Third, I can't help but wonder if the city isn't barking up the wrong tree in going after more convention business -- and not just because convention business is stagnating while competition is increasing.

With the favorable mention this spring by Frommer's, and the opening of a new sports museum and an African-American history museum as well the creation of a heritage walk, it seems worth considering whether the city's future in tourism might be as a two- or three-night regional destination and not as a gathering place for large meetings, which the city has never had much success in attracting.

Baltimore will never match the winter weather of San Diego or Orlando, or the geographic centrality of Chicago that so many conventions seem to seek. But it seems to have growing appeal as a place for a quick getaway, with the new attractions joining such stalwart and expanding ones as the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center.

The city's community development strategy has been to build on strengths -- for example, the biotech park next to the Johns Hopkins medical complex, Reservoir Hill next to Druid Hill Park. Perhaps the city's tourism strategy should follow the same theory.

In this regard, one of the most telling but overlooked paragraphs in the oft-cited Abell Foundation report titled Baltimore's Center of Controversy was its citation of a February report by a Maryland Stadium Authority task force: "Baltimore is so strong as a tourist destination that its strength has affected the price of hotel rooms to the point where blocks of rooms are unavailable to prospective meeting planners at competitive prices" (emphasis added).

Finally, I also can't help but wonder if the headquarters hotel would need public funding if it were allowed to include a casino.

If a new convention center hotel was indeed deemed desirable, the judgment might well turn out to be that public funding was preferable to downtown gambling. But it would be nice to have the opportunity to have the debate.

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