St. Louis built a hotel

BETWEEN THE LINES

they didn't come

July 25, 2005

Seems Baltimore and St. Louis have a lot in common.

Both cities have revived dead downtowns. Both cities have hemorrhaged jobs and population. Both suffer from troubled school systems.

And both have pinned hopes for their convention centers on new headquarters hotels.

Unlike Baltimore, however, St. Louis has already had its hopes dashed.

In town this week to observe Baltimore's lead-abatement initiatives, St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay said he's disappointed in the performance of his town's 1,200-room Renaissance Grand, which opened two years ago.

The $265 million facility, paid for with a mix of private investment and public subsidies, has not lured more conventions to town, and last year Moody's downgraded the hotel's bond rating. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, officials predicted the new hotel would enable the city to host 56 conventions in 2003. They got 25, and things haven't improved much since.

"The challenge is to bring in more conventions business to help fill it," said Slay, who recently ordered convention officials to double the hotel's occupancy average. If the hotel came asking for a bailout, Slay wouldn't be surprised.

As Baltimore considers getting into the hotel business by developing and owning a $305 million Hilton, Slay advised his metropolitan counterpart to beware big promises and rosy projections. And if the hotel is built, to make sure that Baltimore is prepared to market it.

"Our overall strategy was to make the area more attractive and sell the hotel right," Slay said. "We haven't done either as well as I'd like."

But the good news is, the hotel looks great.

"It's beautiful," the mayor said. "You should see it. It's a real positive for downtown."

- Jill Rosen

Medical examiner, examined

Maryland's legislative auditors are notorious nitpickers - in a good way, of course. When they swoop down on some unsuspecting state agency, they virtually always find something amiss - funds that can't be accounted for, equipment missing, deficient financial controls.

So it was noteworthy last week when the Office of Legislative Audits released the results of its financial postmortem on the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner's operations for the last three years.

The result: "Our audit did not disclose any significant deficiencies in the design or operation of the office's internal control. Nor did our audit disclose any significant instances of noncompliance with applicable laws, rules, or regulations."

Karl Aro, executive director of the auditing office's parent Department of Legislative Services, said issuance of such a clean bill of health is "unusual, but not unheard-of" for watchdogs whose motto might as well be "There's no such thing as a clean audit."

"Believe me, they haven't lost their edge," Aro said. "They found one of those rare instances where everybody's doing what they're supposed to do."

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler said the agency has an annual budget of about $7.1 million - which he calculated at $1.29 for every person in Maryland. He said he and his staff of about 80 would keep working to give the taxpayers their $1.29 worth.

Fowler said the clean audit was wonderful news. "It's very gratifying, but I have to say the accolades go out to the staff," he said.

- Michael Dresser

Publicity-shy public official

The proud notice went out from the city Health Department late Thursday: Baltimore, it said, would be playing host the following day to "U.S. Department of State International Visitor Dr. Pan Qichao, Director of the Department of STD/AIDS at the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the Republic of China."

Dr. Pan was in town, the city said, to learn about Baltimore's well-regarded needle-exchange program as part of China's efforts to curb its rapidly growing HIV epidemic.

As it turns out, though, Dr. Pan was not as keen on collecting public relations points from the visit as was the city. In fact, his visit was so closely guarded, one might have thought he was in town learning about advanced nuclear technology. Speaking through an interpreter and trip organizer working for the State Department, he rebuffed a reporter's request to briefly meet with him during the course of the day for an informal chat about his visit, even if the conversation was kept off the record.

"He doesn't feel comfortable speaking with the media," said Sabrina Holly of the Baltimore-based World Trade Center Institute, who was helping lead Dr. Pan's visit. "We have to respect his wishes."

Holly said that Dr. Pan had visited a needle-exchange site in Park Heights and a health clinic that treats sexually transmitted diseases. He also enjoyed lunch at the Inner Harbor - at which restaurant, it was not said.

- Alec MacGillis

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