Hotel meets convention

Officials promise Hilton will boost city

August 23, 2008|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

Tourism and government leaders lauded yesterday's opening of the $301 million city-owned downtown convention headquarters hotel, promising that a project that survived years of controversy over its taxpayer-backed funding and its Camden Yards location will provide Baltimore with newfound commerce.

The 757-room Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel, the city's largest-ever public investment, opened to its first guests yesterday morning, nearly six years after Baltimore officials first proposed the West Pratt Street hotel. The hotel was built to enable the city to bolster its sagging convention business and provide a boost to the expanded Baltimore Convention Center.

"Politically, this was far from an easy project," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the economic development agency that has long promoted the four-star hotel with a guaranteed block of convention rate rooms as a crucial city development. "This project is changing the perception of the city of Baltimore."

So far, the hotel, which has hired about 400 employees, is more than a third booked for its first weekend and should be more than half full by next week, said Linda Norman, the hotel's general manager.

But the more significant boost is expected to come from large business groups that have bypassed Baltimore in the past because it did not have a hotel connected to the convention center.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is planning a five-day event at the Hilton in June 2011, including up to 600 attendees who are expected to stay at the hotel. It will mark the first time that Baltimore hosts the annual meeting, which brings together mayors from across the U.S.

'Definitely helpful'

"The fact that this new hotel was in the works was definitely helpful in the decision process," said Elena Temple, a spokeswoman for the Conference of Mayors. City officials made the unusual and controversial decision three years ago to both develop and own the hotel, selling $301.7 million worth of revenue bonds in January 2006 to finance the hotel.

The hotel's net operating income will be used to pay the debt service on the bonds. In case of a shortfall of projected hotel revenue, the city is pledging $7 million in annual city hotel occupancy tax receipts as a backup.

At the time, city development officials said they had no acceptable proposals from private developers that would not have required city subsidies.

The City Council approved the publicly financed hotel on a 9-6 vote in August 2005 after months of intense debate. The dissenters viewed the project as too risky, and one that could ultimately leave the city on the hook if the project failed.

"All of us in the state and the city knew we needed a convention center hotel if we were going to compete," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was mayor during the initial planning phase for the hotel.

"This was something we had to do for ourselves. Nobody was stepping up to do it for us. ... This isn't just about a hotel stay - it's about a city that is staying on the map."

The first guest

Yesterday, the Hilton's first official guest was someone with family ties to Baltimore, the daughter of Babe Ruth.

Julia Ruth Stevens, who now lives in Conway, N.H., was in town for an appearance today at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.

Stevens, who said she will stay at the hotel for the weekend, accepted a plaque from Mayor Sheila Dixon depicting Stevens' famous father. Dixon said it will be displayed in the hotel. Later, Stevens relaxed in the contemporary blue and rust colored lobby.

"I think it's magnificent," Stevens said of the hotel, "I'm overwhelmed."

Nearby, Matthew Mahoney and Michael Harder, both 14 and decked out in Yankees garb, milled about the granite lobby. The families from Mount Laurel, N.J., were in town for last night's Orioles/Yankees game.

Around them, white-gloved waiters served champagne, a jazz ensemble played and throngs of city and state officials and guests mingled.

"It's exciting," said Donna Harder of Mount Laurel, checking in with her son. "We feel so special."

Her friend, Lorraine Mahoney, said she had booked the rooms just a day earlier for the one-day trip.

She enjoys staying at Hilton Hotels and wanted to be close to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which is a block to the south. About 30 percent of the rooms at the hotel offer views of the baseball field. City officials are crediting the hotel with already helping the city to book a record number of hotel room nights for future years.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association said it had booked 451,608 room nights in city hotels through 2017 during the fiscal year that ended June 30 - an 18 percent jump over where bookings stood last year.

Tom Noonan, BACVA president and chief operating officer, said Baltimore's Hilton was all the buzz during a recent conference of the American Society of Association Executives in San Diego."It's like Christmas," Noonan said. "It's a critical advantage for us."

The numbers

About the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel:

* Guest rooms: 757 with about 30 percent offering views of the field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards

* Development cost: $301 million, the city's largest-ever public investment

* Approved: In August 2005 by Baltimore City Council after months of intense debate

* Room rates: $209 to $299 a night

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