Angry religious leaders descended on City Hall yesterday to demand that Baltimore leaders spend city dollars to end blight, not on a $305 million convention center hotel.
At a public hearing on the hotel plan, City Council President Sheila Dixon fired back at BUILD, a faith-based nonprofit organization, as the group continued to accuse her of reneging on promises to find money for the group's redevelopment efforts in struggling neighborhoods.
Nearly 50 members of BUILD - Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development - protested with a bullhorn and chants outside City Hall yesterday morning then filed into council chambers for the hearing, a continuation of a meeting Wednesday that ran more than eight contentious hours.
Bishop Douglas I. Miles took the podium for BUILD, whose members filled nearly every available seat. He told the council it is "unconscionable" that the city is lavishing attention on a hotel plan to attract visitors when people in Baltimore are living among abandoned houses, on crime-ridden streets and in areas not safe for children.
You're working on "safe zones for tourists while we have no safety," Miles said, before targeting Dixon personally.
Facing the council president, Miles, former head of Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said Dixon had "selective amnesia" about a campaign promise she made to designate a $50 million city revenue bond for neighborhood improvements.
"We're not gonna get into a debate about your perception of my commitment," Dixon interrupted, telling Miles to stick to testimony on the hotel.
"I'm not gonna allow you to stand there and accuse me of something," Dixon continued, shouting, as Miles ignored her. "Bishop Miles, your testimony is over."
Someone then switched off Miles' microphone. But he persisted, raising his voice to compensate.
"I am testifying on the bill. We oppose it until the president fulfills her pre-election promises. We oppose it until the same consideration is given to our neighborhoods.
"We oppose! We oppose! We oppose!" Miles yelled, as many from the crowd joined him, chanting: "We oppose!"
The hearing concluded public testimony on the hotel, which could be Baltimore's most expensive public project ever.
City development and tourism officials, backed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, say the facility is the only way to boost Baltimore's stagnant convention business. The city would develop and own the 752-room Hilton, which would be built adjacent to the downtown convention center.
The next step for the plan is a council work session set for July 11. Although hotel proponents are pushing for the council to vote that day - warning any delay could cause the city to miss out on low bond rates and prevent the hotel from opening in 2008 - some council members say a vote that soon would be a rush job.
"Unless something dramatic happens, I don't see [the administration] having the votes" July 11, said Councilman James B. Kraft, who opposes the plan. "But a lot can happen in two weeks."
Although city departments, including transportation, planning and law, have given the proposed hotel their blessing, it confronts a largely skeptical City Council. And last week, a respected Baltimore foundation issued a report sharply questioning the city's rationale for the project.
Last weekend, BUILD rallied its members to protest the hotel unless the city pledges millions for their cause, too.
'Attacks and threats'
Stepping outside the work session yesterday to hold an impromptu news conference on what she called BUILD's "attacks and threats," Dixon said she is trying to work with the organization but that until it provides solid plans for using the money, there's not much she can do.
"They've been able to bully their way through [the process] in the past and it just doesn't work this time," she said, adding that the only documentation BUILD has submitted on how it would spend the money is a half-page statement called "BUILD's Campaign to Eradicate Blight."
"I can't introduce legislation based on this," Dixon said.
To support a $50 million revenue bond such as BUILD wants, the city would need to dedicate about $4 million a year to paying it back. Unlike the convention center, which development officials say would support itself, that money would be difficult, but not impossible, to find in the city budget, Dixon said.
BUILD officials don't believe it would be such a struggle.
"Are you telling me our city leaders can't find $3.5 million?" asked Rob English, the group's spokesman. "If neighborhood development was a true priority in the city, they would find it."
English and Miles called Dixon's request for a more specific plan "stalling" and the council's pulling the plug on Miles' microphone disrespectful and undemocratic.
"Here's a council that calls for public testimony, then turns off someone's mike," said English. "That's democracy in action."