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.
City and state economic development leaders have concluded that a plan to build a replacement for Royal Farms Arena on the site of the Baltimore Convention Center is too ambitious and complicated to be realistic.
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.”
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 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association plans to announce Tuesday that it will move its popular men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to Baltimore for three years beginning in 2021, potentially providing a huge economic boost to the city.
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.
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.”