Convention center hotel plan is met with skepticism
City Council questions need for facility, public financing
Now on the table before city leaders is a publicly financed convention center hotel - what could be the costliest city project of all time. "In every case, the decision of the council was to move forward," Brodie said. "Now is the time to move forward with this."
Development and tourism officials firmly outlined how the proposed 752-room Hilton, to be developed and owned by the city, is the only way to keep convention business in Baltimore alive. And they insisted that issuing $305 million in city revenue bonds is the only way to build and pay for it.
Though the hearing came a day after the release of an Abell Foundation report questioning whether the hotel would really revive Baltimore's stagnant convention business, Clarence T. Bishop, the mayor's chief of staff, promised it would. He also vowed the hotel would bolster the city's work force and tax rolls without taking money from crime fighting or education.
"The administration feels, and feels strongly, that the iron is hot, the need is clear ... and it's time to act," he said.
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. BDC, the city's economic development agency, chose Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, to lead the team.
One of the more dramatic moments in the hearing came when a representative of a team that lost the development bid in 2003 questioned the BDC's selection of Johnson and its insistence on a publicly financed plan.
Robert C. Hazard, president of the Pittsburgh-based MetroVision Community Development, told the council it was clear when his firm bid that the administration had already decided on Johnson. Hazard's team proposed a privately financed deal that required extensive subsidies from the city.
"It surprised me," he said, "how the mayor publicly put his arm around [Johnson], effectively endorsing the project."
Hazard also said the two-month bid process - a period that fell over the Christmas holiday - was too short. "Maybe that's why there were only three proposals," he said.
Brodie defended the BDC's choice.
"There's an implication that there wasn't thorough consideration," Brodie said. "There was - just not in favor of Mr. Hazard's plan."
"There are no sour grapes," Hazard said outside the hearing. "But don't go and say there was no viable private sector proposals."
Council members skeptical of using tax dollars for the project jumped enthusiastically on Hazard's testimony.
"I'm really excited to hear there are private investors out there that want to be part of this deal," Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said, asking Hazard if he was still interested in the project.
"Absolutely," Hazard replied.
"Mr. Brodie," Young said, "I think you should talk to him."
Though dozens of people had signed up to testify before the hearing began at 1 p.m., as the hours stretched on, many of them left in disgust.