Hotel plan support, aid funds seem tied

The City Council's support for the convention center hotel plan seems increasingly linked to the willingness of Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration to open its wallet to assist struggling neighborhoods.

With a vote to move the publicly funded hotel bill out of committee coming as early as this afternoon, and with a close vote expected, the plan's supporters have waged an intense campaign in recent days to win over the few still-undecided council members.

Siding with inner city clergy who have demanded that if the city supports the $305 million hotel it must invest equally in efforts to combat blight, some council members who have opposed the hotel now say they will support it in exchange for redevelopment dollars.

"I see it as an opportunity to go to bat for the community," said Councilwoman Helen L. Holton. "I've thought long and hard about this. If they think this is such a great idea, ... let's spread the wealth."

In the weeks since Baltimore church leaders rallied at City Hall, scolding city leaders for paying more attention to grooming downtown for tourists than to the city's low-income communities, the mayor's staff has realized that the trick to winning support for the hotel might be appeasing the clergy - and the council members who support them.

"We need to bring the hotel back to the neighborhoods," Clarence T. Bishop, the mayor's chief of staff said recently. "Perhaps then the hotel plan will meet with more receptivity overall."

The O'Malley administration is pushing the convention center hotel, which would be the city's costliest public project, as the only way to save the faltering downtown convention center.

The city would develop and own the 752-room Hilton and finance the project with revenue bonds. The goal, officials say, is for the hotel to be self-sustaining. But skeptics, including many on the council, question why the city is getting into the hotel business and whether the hotel will help lure more conventions.

To sway doubters, O'Malley, his key staff people, the Baltimore Development Corp., the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, and union representatives have persistently lobbied council members one by one.

The cajoling calls and visits came even as more groups voiced their objections. Baltimore clergy, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Abell Foundation, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan have all voiced concerns about the project.

Bishop said O'Malley is considering several ideas to improve neighborhoods, such as using part of the planned hotel's occupancy tax to fix schools, pave streets or build community parks.

Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday that she is also investigating using the hotel tax as well as other ways to devote "maybe $10 [million] to $15 million" to neighborhood redevelopment.

"Not $50 million," she cautioned, alluding to the amount the group BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, has demanded.

Dixon, who decides whether to bring legislation to a vote, said she thinks questions still surround the plan - but that "we're coming closer to it."

Holton said she told the mayor that to win her vote, she needs "at least" $50 million for neighborhood efforts - money she wants to come from the planned hotel's revenues.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. told O'Malley he wants $50 million for neighborhoods and $10 million to start a recreation center revitalization fund. He also wants Hilton to take $10 million from the $25 million it is guaranteed to back the city's bond debt and offer it to the city upfront.

"The BDC mentioned there would be some complications in my $10 million from Hilton," Harris said. "But with the other two issues, they said they're gonna get back to me on that. The mayor said his staff is looking into it."

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese declined to discuss the specifics of the mayor's negotiations, but he confirmed they are happening.

"The communities have made it clear they're interested in community development dollars," Abbruzzese said yesterday. "The process is ongoing, and he expects the bills to pass when they come up for a vote."

Some council members seemed disgusted with their peers' attitudes. Holton and Harris said previously that they would not support the hotel unless there was private investment in it.

"You don't have anything else in politics but your word," said Councilman James B. Kraft, who is firmly against the hotel. "If my colleagues change their position on public financing, I'll be surprised and disappointed."

Edward L. Reisinger said this month that before supporting the hotel he needed to have the mayor look him in the eye and tell him why the city is better off without private investment in the hotel.

Reisinger said a half-hour heart-to-heart discussion with O'Malley last week sold him on the city's public financing plan.

"If I didn't agree with this, if I didn't think it was a positive for the city, I wouldn't vote for it," Reisinger said. "No matter what he offered me."