Visit Baltimore, the city's quasi-public marketing and tourism arm, is asking the Hampden Village Merchants Association to pay a membership fee of up to $20,000 per year to join the organization.
To make the fee more palatable, Visit Baltimore officials have offered to help pay for a planned skateboard park and concert series in Hampden.
The $20,000 aggregate fee translates to about $125 per member per year for the merchants association's 160 to 170 members. For the same level of membership in Visit Baltimore, individual merchants in the Hampden association would pay $650 a year each, according to Visit Baltimore officials.
The officials, President and CEO Tom Noonan and Vice President of Membership and Development Bon Whiting, made a well-received presentation to the Hampden merchants association at its monthly meeting Wednesday.
Merchants association members already pay $125 a year in membership dues. For the association to cover the cost of joining Visit Baltimore, dues would have to be doubled, said association president Benn Ray.
"My concern is raising $20,000 a year, every year, to make it sustainable," Ray said after the meeting. "But if the merchants want to do it, they'll find a way to do it."
Genny Dill, who is organizing Hampden Hi-Fi, a series of eight concerts at Roosevelt Park, said she didn't even know Noonan or his organization's vice president until the meeting.
"I went from not knowing them to having them give me money," she said.
Ray complimented Noonan and Whiting on their offer to donate money to the Hampden skate park and concert initiatives.
"That was a smooth move," Ray said.
Spur of the moment
Waiting to address the merchants association, Noonan listened in the audience as Dill, of Hampden Hi-Fi, and Stephanie Murdock, organizer of the skate park project, made separate appeals to the association for donations of $1,000.
Then, it was Noonan's turn to ask for money — at least $10,000 for the association to join Visit Baltimore at its lowest level, or $20,000 to become what one merchant characterized as "a platinum member."
But he also made a surprise announcement that left the audience of about 30 merchants gasping and cheering.
"You know the $1,000 (for the concert series) you're talking about? We're paying for it," he said.
And he said he would make good on the offer even if the merchants' association decides not join Visit Baltimore.
Then, Noonan went further, offering to also give $1,000 toward the skate park. That offer, however, was contingent on the association joining at the $20,000 membership fee level, he said.
Dill, delighted as she was to receive money from Visit Baltimore, pressed Noonan on whether he would support a long-standing call by merchants for the city to bring the free bus service known as the Charm City Circulator to Hampden.
Noonan said he would, if the merchants association becomes a member of Visit Baltimore.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who attended the merchants association meeting, said the circulator bus is sorely needed in Hampden, because the community is "off the beaten path."
Visit Baltimore is the city's official convention and tourism sales agency, known in the industry as a destination management organization. It's better known, however, as a representative of restaurants and hotels, rather than retailers.
Hampden was the first of at least five shopping districts in the city that Visit Baltimore plans to solicit for a membership drive aimed at raising the state-funded, nonprofit agency's profile for retailers. The others include Federal Hill, Mount Vernon, Fells Point, Harbor East and General Growth Properties' Inner Harbor.
"I need to create a robust, especially retail program" for Visit Baltimore, Noonan told the Hampden merchants. "When people look at Baltimore, they don't think there's any shopping."
He went on to say that in Hampden specifically, Visit Baltimore counts only six retailers as members.
"You're underrepresented right now," he said.
For $20,000, the merchants' association would get perks for its members including business leads, coupons for customers and listings in Visit Baltimore's publications and on its website, http://www.baltimore.org, according to Noonan and the website.
"As a member of Visit Baltimore, you will be on the inside track to attract and develop new business. We'll be your link to the hard-to-get-to meeting planners and the lucrative tourism market," the website states.
Susannah Siger, owner of Ma Petite Shoe and a member of both Visit Baltimore and the merchants association, said Visit Baltimore has helped publicize Hampden and her business nationally, including getting the national and international media to write newspaper stories about the business community.
Siger said she assumes Visit Baltimore would not make her pay as both an individual member of its group and as a member of the merchants association.
"I'm not worried about it," she said.