Deals secure council votes for city hotel

O'Malley administration offers funding for projects

9-6 vote is likely Monday

Hilton to cost $305 million, $72 million for community

August 12, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration secured enough support yesterday to comfortably push a publicly financed convention center hotel through its next City Council vote by steering more money toward community revitalization programs - including two neighborhood centers in one council member's district.

Council members Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Helen L. Holton said in interviews yesterday that behind-the-scenes negotiations persuaded them to support the plan to build a Hilton hotel next to the Baltimore Convention Center. Their commitments will secure a 9-6 majority for preliminary passage Monday. Final votes will be taken next month.

"The administration is very excited about this," said Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock. "It's been a great team effort."

A month ago, the mayor's hotel plan had only three declared backers on the 15-member council. But administration concessions to council demands for community investments have now built what the administration and most council members believe is a solid nine-member majority of supporters.

Opposition members decried the deal-making and said risks associated with publicly financing the hotel's $305 million cost outweighed the roughly $72 million being steered to neighborhoods.

Holton was able to get the administration to persuade Hilton to ensure that 75 percent to 85 percent of its hotel jobs would go to city residents. As part of that deal, Hilton committed to working with city agencies to provide jobs for ex-offenders and the unemployed, she said.

Holton said the administration also agreed yesterday to two projects in her Southwest Baltimore district: a gymnasium for the Edgewood Recreation Center, to cost at least $1 million, and a community action center in Edmondson Village.

In addition, Holton negotiated a tentative deal to create a grant program that would help senior citizens on fixed incomes pay to repair housing code violations.

"I'm supporting the project because of the jobs for the city," Holton said.

Harris persuaded the administration to get Hilton officials to pledge $3 million in scholarships for city residents studying hotel management. The administration also agreed to place a $9 million bond question on the 2006 ballot to finance renovations to recreation centers across the city.

Other compromises had been made to secure votes, such as the $59 million affordable housing fund and the living wage guarantee for the union workers at the proposed 752-room Hilton hotel.

"The mayor and [Council] President [Sheila] Dixon appreciate the fact that Harris was wiling to work toward a solution," Hitchcock said. "This process is moving forward."

Under the plan being considered by the council, the city would create a corporation to develop, own and operate the hotel, to be built adjacent to the Convention Center just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore would issue revenue bonds to finance the hotel.

If the hotel fails, the city would use tax income from the hotel - and possibly the occupancy tax from all Baltimore hotels - to pay off its debt.

The council's committee of the whole agreed last week to place the hotel plan on Monday's agenda by an 8-7 vote. Holton voted "yes" and Harris cast a "no" ballot. Holton said that her support was only a procedural move to free the package from committee and that she remained skeptical.

Harris has consistently said the city needs a convention center hotel but needed more private investment. He said that once he became convinced that no private capital was possible, he demanded that Hilton make an investment in the city.

"I'm willing to compromise," he said. "I was a `no' vote [Aug. 1] to show that I was serious business. I had some strict guidelines for my support."

Hilton scholarships

Harris said he initially demanded a $10 million investment by Hilton but later acknowledged that that was asking too much. He said Hilton agreed Wednesday to provide $200,000 in annual scholarships for 15 years, to be doled out to city residents who are studying hospitality and hotel management at city colleges. How the money will be distributed is open to negotiations, Harris said.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. was somewhat surprised by Harris' change of heart. Mitchell said he knew Harris and Holton were holding out for a compromise.

He said they were wrong to support the hotel based on the compromises because the city was providing money for recreation center renovations, affordable housing programs, demolition of vacant housing, and job training and scholarship programs. None of the concessions, he said, outweighs the risk associated with publicly financing a $305 million hotel.

Politics vs. policy

Mitchell said his colleagues have "settled for crumbs."

"Politics have prevailed over good policy," he said. "The hotel issue is separate from neighborhood development. Neighborhood development should be happening in the first place, and I agree that it is happening."

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