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Planning commission accepts hotel plan

Sun Staff

Baltimore's planning commission enthusiastically endorsed plans yesterday for a publicly financed convention center hotel, saying that without it, the city won't stay competitive in the convention business.

In the first in a series of public hearings on the hotel, to be developed and owned by the city, the commission unanimously approved bills that would create a property tax district for the hotel, authorize the sale of revenue bonds to pay for it and close streets for its construction.

"We are very much in favor of doing this," said planning Commissioner Javier G. Bustamante. "I think it looks awfully good, and this is going to be great for Baltimore."

The Baltimore Development Corp. and city tourism officials say Baltimore needs the $305 million, 752-room hotel to keep up with the convention industry, which increasingly demands hotels adjacent to convention centers, particularly hotels that can guarantee rooms for groups.

Executives with the Baltimore Area Conference and Visitors Association say the lack of such a facility has cost Baltimore about 120,000 room bookings over the last three years - or about $100 million.

The convention center hotel, which would be operated by Hilton Hotels Corp., would connect to the downtown convention center through a second-story skywalk. The hotel would reserve 600 of its rooms for conventions.

"We're past due for this hotel," say City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, the council's planning commission representative. "We've proved we've earned it and we heartily need it."

With City Council approval, the hotel could be built on vacant land just north of and open as soon as the spring of 2008.

Officials say they intend for the hotel to eventually pay for itself. However, to guarantee the bonds, the city had to promise other ways to pay should revenues fall short. The city would then have to use property tax, then the hotel's occupancy tax and then - as a last resort - money from the citywide hotel occupancy tax.

Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie told the commission that public financing is the only way to build the hotel. And without it, Baltimore will undoubtedly lose even more convention dollars.

The city has spent eight years, Brodie said, looking for a private sector "angel" to finance the hotel. "If there was another way to do this other than public financing, we would be delighted," Brodie said.

"So if we don't step up to the plate ... we don't get nothin'?" asked commission Chairman Peter E. Auchincloss.

"Exactly," Brodie answered.

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