City hotel plan sweetened by millions

Dixon adds $59 million for neighborhood projects

July 28, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

With an all-but-deadlocked Baltimore City Council poised for its first crucial vote on a convention center hotel, Council President Sheila Dixon revealed a multimillion-dollar community redevelopment plan yesterday that she hopes will seal the deal.

After the council spent three more hours haggling over the hotel proposal, Dixon said in an interview that she will introduce a bill to create a housing trust fund, providing as much as $59 million in five years that community groups could apply for to aid blighted neighborhoods.

The idea - which Dixon said was cemented in conversations with Mayor Martin O'Malley - could assuage those who feel the city should fix its broken neighborhoods before building a $305 million downtown hotel.

And it could give O'Malley's administration the community leverage it believes it needs to get the publicly financed Hilton past the skeptical City Council.

"I think it's an avenue - if that's what it's going to take to get the council confident on moving forward with the hotel," Dixon said after the council work session.

The mayor's spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, said yesterday that O'Malley is working on a deal that involves making sure money is set aside for community development.

"Discussions are taking place on the plan," she said.

The council's committee of the whole, which has been considering the hotel proposal for more than a month, is scheduled to vote Monday to move the bills to the council floor - where their fate will be decided.

Council split

With the 15-member council essentially split down the middle on the hotel, the O'Malley administration seems to have realized the need to link the downtown project with something to benefit the rest of the city.

And at least two council members who have been forcefully opposed to the hotel said this week that they would support the hotel in exchange for neighborhood redevelopment funds.

Inner-city clergy groups and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have pressured the council not to support the convention hotel without equally investing in wiping out blight.

At yesterday's work session, members of the clergy group BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, sat in the audience, not speaking to the council but hoping their presence would remind the officials of their demand for a $50 million bond for rebuilding neighborhoods.

Talking to Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. outside council chambers, BUILD members urged him to "be strong."

Conditions for vote

Harris said he has told the mayor that he would support the hotel if he gets $50 million for neighborhoods and $10 million to start a recreation center revitalization fund, and if Hilton offers the city upfront a portion of the money it has pledged to guarantee Baltimore's bond debt.

Harris said yesterday that he isn't sure whether Dixon's plan offers what he is looking for.

"I would like to look into the details," he said. "I really don't know."

Dixon said she plans to introduce her bill at the council's next regular meeting, Aug. 15.

To create the housing trust fund, Dixon said, the city would use part of its revenue stream from the downtown Hyatt.

When that hotel was built nearly 20 years ago, in exchange for its seed money, the city was promised a share of the profit. Baltimore has earned $35 million.

Additionally, some Community Development Block Grant funds could go into the pot, Dixon said, as could some revenue from the convention hotel - if it gets built.

The trust would start with about $10 million, she said, and grow to as much as $59 million in five years.

Grants from trust

Community groups with ideas for redevelopment projects would be able to apply to the trust for grants.

Harris said the application makes him uneasy. He said he is afraid that a needy neighborhood with a weak community association might not be able to come up with a proposal as strong as a wealthier neighborhood.

"I don't want the haves to get what the have-nots haven't," Harris said.

Councilwoman Helen L. Holton said she told the mayor that to win her vote, she needs "at least" $50 million for neighborhood efforts - money she wants to come from the convention hotel's revenue.

Like Harris, Holton said she's not sure whether Dixon's plan is the answer.

"That's something we probably should be doing anyway," she said of the trust.

"I don't know. That's something I will have to think about. ... I'm waiting to hear from the mayor."

Hotel measures

O'Malley and the Baltimore Development Corp. say the convention hotel, which would be the city's costliest public project, would save the faltering downtown Convention Center. And they say that by developing and owning the 752-room Hilton, the city is getting the best deal possible.

At the work session, the mayor's chief of staff, Clarence T. Bishop, reiterated his optimism that the hotel bills will pass.

"We continue to be confident that this proposal will more forward," he said, offering a pep talk of sorts for the project, painting its skeptics as anti-progress.

Objections

A couple of those skeptics, including Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., objected to Bishop's statements.

"You make it sound like those in opposition are in favor of the city standing still," Mitchell said. "That's not the case. This is the first time this council has challenged the administration on an issue like this."

Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, who supports the hotel, said the controversy over it reminds her of Harborplace, when community furor forced the issue to a referendum.

"I remember the stickers. I remember the buttons. I remember the fights." she said.

"But after the dust settled, what I grew up with is something that put Baltimore on the map. ... We deserve to continue to move forward, and that's why I'm supporting this."

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