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Lacking votes, council delays hotel decision

Hotels and AccommodationsHotel and Accommodation IndustryFinanceElectionsRegional Authority

They are not convinced.

Despite more than 10 hours of public hearings, private tutoring sessions, reams of tedious documents, endorsements from the mayor and cajoling phone calls from union leaders, Baltimore City Council members are just not ready to approve a convention center hotel - which, at $305 million, would be the city's costliest public project.

So today, when hotel advocates had hoped the project would go to a vote, the council will instead continue asking questions at a work session, trying to get a handle on the complex and increasingly controversial proposal.

"There's nothing here to persuade me to say yes," said Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, whose doubts are shared by at least half of the council. "The votes aren't there."

The work session will be at 2 p.m. today at City Hall. The meeting is open, but the council won't take public testimony.

Of the council's 15 members, only three say that they fully support a convention center hotel that the city would develop, own and pay for with revenue bonds. Eight say they oppose it or are leaning against it. Three haven't made up their minds, and one didn't respond to inquiries from The Sun.

Council members tick off reasons for doubts about the project: The city hasn't tried hard enough to find a private developer. Other issues deserve more attention. Baltimore doesn't need a convention center hotel.

"In my district, I can't get funding to fix vacant houses. I can't deliver a million dollars to Pen Lucy to address blight," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "I'm worried about the financing and the kind of precedent this is setting."

Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency, and Mayor Martin O'Malley say the city needs the 752-room Hilton, which would be built adjacent to the downtown convention center, to remain competitive in the convention industry.

They insist they've found no private investors to rival the deal before the council, in which the city would build the hotel with $305 million in revenue bonds, then use income from the hotel to pay off those bonds. Although the city would have to foot the bill if the hotel fell short, O'Malley calls the risk "very acceptable."

"If, God forbid, there is another calamity, a second attack on the travel and tourism industry and it tanks us for a year then, yes, we are on the hook," the mayor said last week, before the London transit system bombings. "Given the fact that we have virtually full hotels all around the city ... this is a responsible way to do it."

Yet council members, including Holton, Kenneth N. Harris Sr., Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Bernard C. "Jack" Young, say that without private investment, they can't support the project.

Many of them would like the BDC to reopen the bidding to see whether an investor comes forward.

"The city should not be in the business of owning and operating a hotel," Mitchell said. "If it's too risky for a private investor, why in the world are we going to do it?"

Yet some on the council, such as Robert W. Curran, agree with the mayor that by owning the hotel, the city could share in the profits.

"If it was a totally private hotel, we'd have to put in a $100 million subsidy and we'd get nothing back on that," Curran said.

As council members consider the hotel, taking calls from union leaders who want the jobs it would bring and listening to city clergy who demand equal attention for blighted neighborhoods, some say they're puzzled not to have heard straight from O'Malley.

Edward L. Reisinger said: "The mayor's got to sell it to me. ... I want to look in his eyes and hear him say it."

Holton, too, is waiting: "When issues are really important to the mayor, he's picked up the phone for himself."

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the mayor has met with all the council members individually to express his support for the hotel, but he hasn't lobbied them recently.

Instead, O'Malley and BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie logged radio time last week to explain the financing and to counter critics who have said the city favors downtown development over neighborhood revitalization.

Ministers from predominantly black churches have staged protests to tell city leaders that neighborhoods need attention. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, O'Malley's likely challenger in next year's Democratic primary for governor, joined the clergy in questioning the hotel.

Young agrees with them, saying, "I would rather put most of our efforts into blighted communities than a hotel downtown."

It's not a question of either building a hotel or aiding struggling neighborhoods, O'Malley argues. He said he's "searching for ways" to improve neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Brodie has warned repeatedly that not voting by today could result in a costlier project should interest rates and construction costs rise.

Despite the wait, Brodie said, the hotel would eventually win support.

"It doesn't change our confidence that ultimately they will see the good sense of proceeding," he said.

Council President Sheila Dixon, declining to commit to either a yes or a no vote, decided last week that the council wasn't ready to vote. She said she's not sure when a vote will come but said it could happen by the council's next meeting, Aug. 15.

"Right now it's tight," Dixon said. "It's close."

Although some council members have said that a major project should be approved definitively, with more than a one- or two-vote margin, hotel supporters aren't asking for the moon - any kind of win will do.

"Definitive," said council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, "is a majority."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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