Amid the noisy debate over the future of Pimlico Race Course and other last-minute business, the General Assembly passed another measure atop Baltimore’s wish list — a bill that would provide money for planning the expansion of the city’s convention center and construction of a new convention hotel.
City boosters and tourism officials say the Baltimore Convention Center needs an overhaul to remain competitive and attract bigger groups. Built in 1979 and last renovated and expanded in 1997, the convention center is losing repeat customers such as the Natural Products Expo East and Otakon, which are taking their tens of thousands of attendees and millions in economic impact elsewhere.
The measure legislators passed before the session ended last week would approve state funding to plan and design the center’s renovation and expansion as well as the new hotel. The legislation also would direct the Maryland Stadium Authority to work with the city on estimating how much the project would cost and exploring how to pay for it all.
“We have a great opportunity to attract some larger conventions here with more, and more modern space,” said Sen. Antonio Hayes, a West Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “These large-scale conventions are a boon to the local economy. They also support a great number of jobs, many for local Baltimoreans.”
Under the bill legislators are sending to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration, the state would pay for two-thirds of the estimated $50 million planning costs, with the city expected to pay the remainder. The governor can sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. Funding for construction would need to be approved separately.
The effort to expand the West Pratt Street convention center began in earnest in July, when the city released a study finding expansion was needed to attract new business. The study, conducted by the stadium authority, explored options aimed at competing with the likes of Nashville, Tenn.; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh and Washington, all of which have expanded or built new convention centers within the past decade.
Of several options laid out in the study, officials chose one calling for the expansion and renovation of the convention with the addition of a new hotel. The other options included building a new convention center, adding an arena or simply upgrading the existing facility.
All the options called for demolishing and replacing the center’s East Building, which dates to 1979, and increasing the center’s square footage by 500,000 square feet to 1.7 million, with exhibit space increasing by a third to 400,000 square feet. Under the chosen plan, a 500-room hotel would go on the site of the nearby 337-room Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel.
With the legislature passing legislation that would approve funding for planning and design, officials expressed optimism that they were a step closer to new space to market.
“As the organization charged with booking and servicing events, including large, citywide meetings at the Baltimore Convention Center, Visit Baltimore’s success is intrinsically tied to the facility,” Al Hutchinson, president & CEO of the city’s tourism agency, Visit Baltimore, said in a statement. “As such, we look forward to working closely with the Maryland Stadium Authority and city of Baltimore on the planning and design work.”
The city has touted the project’s potential for attracting millions more in economic spinoff from filling restaurants and hotel rooms and other income.
Some city officials have expressed frustration with the city-owned Hilton convention hotel that opened in 2008 and finally turned a profit in 2017 after officials refinanced the debt and cut costs. Bernard C. “Jack” Young, then City Council president and now ex officio mayor, had called for the Hilton to be sold.
As for the new proposal, Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the Democratic mayor was interested in hearing what the city and state officials come up with.
“The folks at Visit Baltimore and other agencies are working really hard to move the ball and make incremental advancements, and he’s encouraged by this,” Davis said. “He’s cautiously optimistic at this point. It’s not a situation where he’s committing to any anything new. They are getting a sense of the lay of the land, and he’s looking to get up to speed and see what makes sense before moving forward.”
The proposal had support from Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh, but she is now on medical leave.
Just as city officials have been fighting to keep the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, they’ve been building the case for overhauling the convention center.
Hutchinson had been citing losses for the convention center, which is 1.2 million square feet, smaller than newer counterparts. The Natural Products Expo said it will take its 30,000 attendees to Philadelphia in 2020; Otakon, a Japanese anime and lifestyle convention relocated to Washington in 2017; the National Athletic Trainers' Association drew about 12,000 people, but left after 2016; the American Society of Human Genetics, which drew about 8,000, moved on after 2015.
The city did announce earlier this year that it had signed the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association men’s and women’s basketball tournament for three years beginning in 2021. The weeklong event is something of an alumni reunion and celebrity-studded festival sponsored by an athletic conference made up of smaller historically black colleges and universities, including Bowie State University.
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Some 150,000 people routinely attend the tournament, and officials in its current home city of Charlotte, N.C., say it has produced $50 million in economic spinoff.
Baltimore officials said they are accommodating the event because it’s coming in the slow month of February, so hotel rooms are widely available in and around Baltimore. Games will be played at Royal Farms Arena, with other events being held at the convention center and other venues.
Leaders had said they hoped the tournament week would also boost the city’s image after riots stemming from the death in 2015 of Freddie Gray, a young, black man, from injuries suffered in police custody. The city still grapples with a historically high murder rate, and now a black eye from a scandal involving Pugh’s insider book deal with the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she served.
Visit Baltimore has booked 54 conventions in the city in 2019. There were 57 in 2018, 52 in 2017 and 48 in 2016. The convention center and hotels also book their own events.
Now, the work could begin soon to hash out a deal with the city and begin planning.
In a statement, the stadium authority said it “continues to work with its stakeholders and study partners on the Baltimore Convention Center Renovation/Expansion Study – Phase 2 that will outline preliminary design, cost estimating, and financing modeling. MSA looks forward to negotiating an agreement with the city of Baltimore as a basis of funding for potential next steps with allocating planning and design costs.”